PARK CITY, UTAH: The phrase “equal-opportunity offender” is tossed around with such shrugging carelessness that it’s all but lost its fangs; you mostly hear it used by shock jocks and racists. But it seems about the only appropriate way to describe the authorial voice of stand-up comic, Mr. Show co-creator, and, now, feature filmmaker David Cross, whose debut picture Hits premiered last night at the Sundance Film Festival. In it, Cross faces the rather challenging task of sustaining a narrative that dislikes pretty much every character that inhabits it. But that’s also what makes the film audacious — you’ve got to admire Cross’s consistency.
He begins his story in the small upstate New York town of Liberty, where Dave Stuben (UCB’s Matt Walsh) is locked in a perpetual battle with the city council over a giant pothole on his street and the lack of snow plows on their block. Dave is a particular type of flag-waving “citizen,” who listens to a lot of talk radio, supplements his speech with fabricated quotes from the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and launches into rants about his liberty and freedom at City Council meetings. “I AM A CITIZEN!” he bellows, as he’s dragged from the lectern. “YOU WILL HEAR ME!” Meanwhile, his daughter Katelyn (Meredith Hagner) is a vapid, celeb-obsessed twit, convinced she’s destined to appear on The Voice — in spite of the fact that she can’t carry a tune in a paper bag.
In these early scenes, Cross (who wrote and directs) is taking some pretty easy shots, and the viewer can be forgiven for wondering if the entire film will engage in this kind of fish-and-barrel satire. But then one of Dave’s rants catches the attention of a Greenpoint, Brooklyn-based “think tank,” which remixes it into a viral video that turns Dave into some kind of common-man hero. And then the vegans and hipsters head upstate.
What’s refreshing about this secondary storyline is that Cross is even more cynical about his Brooklyn hippies than he is about the small-town dullards — and he convincingly portrays how they’d champion Dave, since they too traffic mostly in empty buzzwords and righteous indignation, and sets up exactly how badly that might go for everyone.
Talking to the Sundance audience at a Q&A after Tuesday’s premiere, Cross explained how he became aware of characters like Dave. “When I used to live in Los Angeles,” he said, “on the second Tuesday of every month, KCRW — which is the NPR station in Santa Monica and Los Angeles — would air the city council meetings. And the last ten minutes or so, they would let their crazy people talk, and there’s lots and lots of crazy people in Santa Monica. And I’ve always been fascinated by it, and I would always tune in.”
In its take-no-prisoners spirit and scathing social satire, Cross’s debut recalls Bob Goldthwait’s lacerating God Bless America, though it stops somewhat short of that picture’s outright nihilism. But it shares Goldthwait’s disbelief at what passes for both popular culture and political discourse, and while the aesthetics are passable at best (it’s pretty much shot like a long Mr. Show sketch, and it often lurches uncertainly from scene to scene), the rage is palpable, and welcome. Hits is a bit of a mess, but it’s a ballsy, uncompromising mess.
When the worm finally turns, Cross really finds his rhythm, and the climactic sequence is thrilling in its vulgar inevitability and utter nastiness. Some might worry about crossing the lines of good taste and social taboos in that scene, and throughout the movie, but not Cross, who insists nothing is sacred. “I’m not trying to be cute,” he notes. “The only thing I wouldn’t want to do is hurt somebody’s feelings who doesn’t deserve it, like a real person who’s kind of an innocent victim? Outside of that, any topic is open for discussion or parody.”
Hits plays this week at the Sundance Film Festival.