Film Review: Ringmaster

Ringmaster is a frosty glass of lemonade made from a sloppy pile of lemons belonging to a man called Zachary Capp. Ringmaster directors Dave Newberg and Molly Dworsky were 2 members of Capp’s crew, originally hired to make a documentary television series called “American Food Legends”. The pilot would feature a mid-western man called Larry Lang and his allegedly unparalleled onion rings. Unfortunately, Capp was an untrained, first-time filmmaker fresh out of gambling rehab and Larry was a reclusive and, ultimately reluctant subject. Newberg and Dworksy manage to pull a decently compelling documentary out of Zachary’s “capp”. Their film begs the question, who is real ringmaster? Is it Larry and his literal onion rings? It is Zachary and his documentary production circus? Or is it Newberg and Dworsky, who secretly began filming Zachary when it became clear to them that his original vision was a windmill and he was Don Quixote?

The first half of the film is more-or-less a long-form version of Capp’s pilot for “American Food Legends” complete with a rockin’ graphic that pops in for the occasional narrative punchline. Fresh out of rehab for a gambling addiction, and looking for a change of pace, Zachary decided to leave his job as CEO of a successful housecleaning firm and use the entirety of his recently-acquired inheritance from his grandfather in order to pursue a lifelong(?) dream of being a documentary film and television director. There are SO MANY things wrong with American capitalist society, but one of the biggies is the notion that people with money can and should follow their dreams by any means necessary and against all odds.

Zachary fondly remembers these onion rings that are inexplicably superior to all other onion rings. Fans describe them as “light”, and “not greasy”, and “better than the Bloomin’ Onion”. Nobody knows what goes into Larry Lang’s secret batter other than himself, his sister, and their father, who started serving them at the family restaurant in the mid-twentieth century. The restaurant burned down, but Larry brought the recipe to a bar in his small town. There, he became a local celebrity and his onion rings were a major draw for the establishment. Zachary tracked Larry down, determined to feature the man and his rings in his pilot. Larry initially agreed to cooperate, but in time, it becomes clear that his sister/caretaker is really the one who wanted to pursue the exposure. She had a taste of the spotlight when she wrote and starred in “Mother Goose Workout” in the 1980’s, and she sings showtunes at the drop of a hat like an aimless Linda Belcher. Larry just wants to make his rings and go home.

Capp becomes obsessed with manifesting the narrative that he’s constructed in his head. He believes that if he pulls the right strings, he can make Larry and his onion rings into a world-famous phenomenon. Capp is enough of a salesman to attract the attention of a racetrack owner, the band KISS, and the owner of the Las Vegas Raiders football team. Zachary could make Larry rich and famous if only he would show up and make his onion rings. The trouble is, Larry is not interested in this at all. He’s a simple man with basic wants and needs that don’t involve being on television or signing any sort of contract. The conflict comes when Capp can’t wrap his mind around Larry’s lack of ambition and Larry is too meek to tell Capp to leave him alone. It’s a bad scene that keeps getting worse and you don’t know how much things will escalate before the end. The creeping dread is bolstered by a flash-forward cold-open that hints at Larry’s mental degradation.   

Capp keeps insisting he’s not a bad guy and he only wants what’s best for Larry. But what happens when you only THINK you know what’s best for someone based on capitalist brain washing and therapy platitudes? What if you forget to check in with the person you’re supposedly helping? Capp seeks the perfect ending for his film by any means necessary while his editor tells him they should work with what they have. One off the most damaging things we’ve been taught as children are that we should keep pursuing our dreams at all costs. Sometimes, it’s better to cut your losses before you do some damage you can’t walk away from.

Still, I’m glad Newberg and Dwrosky knew what to do with the hundreds of hours of footage acquired during this 3+ year debacle. They took the rotting fruits of Zachary’s labor and crafted a meta film about obsession, selfishness, capitalist blinders, and addiction that will stick with you for a lot longer than would have a 30-minute show about onions rings.

Film Threat Review: Saint John of Las Vegas

2010
Rated R
85 minutes

**

The “flashback” narrative has become quite popular. A film opens with a scene in which things are bad, desperate or cliff-hangery and then a title card shoots the audience into the past to show us how things got to be so dire. At one time, it was an innovative way to tell a story. But these days, many directors use it just to be cool. They don’t even think about whether or not it’s a fitting way to tell their story. Is Steve Buscemi’s “Saint John” really at his wits end when he enters a Las Vegas gas station and decides to buy $1000 in instant lottery tickets? Sure, his face is pretty worse-for-wear, but, once we learn more about his character, it’s evident that this behavior is not at all out of the ordinary for him. A wide variety of events in his past could have brought him to this same scenario. Besides, $1000 may be a lot of money for a workingman, but blowing it isn’t a life-or-death situation by any means. With the temporal-shift title card, you know director Hue Rhodes is going to work his way back to this pretty ho-hum scene. It kind of renders the whole movie hollow before it even kicks off.

A voiceover tells us that John used to be lucky. And then one day, his luck ran out and he lost everything, thus, ending with a depressing career at an Albuquerque-based auto insurance company. His only thrills are his daily lotto ticket habit and leering at his happy-face obsessed cubical mate (Sarah Silverman). Maybe it’s Buscemi’s performance, but watching the current incarnation of Saint John makes the idea that he used to live a life of glitz and glamour in Vegas pretty hard to swallow. Maybe he did. Or maybe he just prefers to remember things that way.

When John petitions his egomaniacal boss (Peter Dinklage) for a raise, he instead gets assigned to a new department. A co-worker by the name of Virgil (Romany Malco) runs the fraud division and needs a partner to help him investigate a suspicious accident in the desert. John is hesitant at first because a) there’s no promise of increased pay and b) the assignment is dangerously close to Las Vegas, a city that he believes will send him back into his gambling dark place. But eventually John concedes because he wants to impress the boss and his cube-mate crush. So off he goes with a quiet, stern, dick of a mentor toward a city he fears to clinch a job he isn’t sure he even wants.

The film is based on a short story, and it seems likely that it worked much better in that format. Maybe the references to “Dante’s Inferno” would have seemed more fleshed out, and not just a way to name-check classic literature. Sure, there’s the Vegas-as-hell comparison, but not only is it cliché, it doesn’t even seem accurate in terms of our protagonist. All of John’s pain is self-inflicted and one gets the impression that he could ruin his life just as easily in any city. The man would find a way to gamble in a monastery.

And then there’s the quirk. Along the way, John and Virgil encounter a number of wacky characters that read like ideas scrawled onto a diner napkin at three in the morning: wheelchair lap dance, nudist rednecks, kinky co-worker with happy-face obsession, carnie geek stuck in faulty pyrotechnics suit. It would be much easier to accept these characters in short paragraphs. Spending a whole vignette with them is too much.

It’s hard to say what, if anything, could have saved this movie. The talented cast does all they can with the weak material. The desert is inherently a vast wasteland; one that we’ve seen in a million other movies, so the cinematography isn’t enough either. Despite an attempt at a twist, the whole story just peters out. The ending is neither happy nor sad. It’s just a man getting on with his life. Even with the presence of wheelchair-bound strippers, it’s a little too hyper-realistic to be interesting.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).