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.