Strangely punctuated, this Amerindie series offers seven films in seven nights. I had time to watch two in advance.
Runs Fri., Feb. 22-Thurs. Feb. 28 at Northwest Film Forum.
Who is Eddie Pepitone? The veteran standup performer came late to the alt-comedy party, earning a slot at Bumbershoot 2010. He tours rarely, and isn't exactly a camera-friendly presence. Now in his mid-50s, fat and bald, he's like a cross between Lewis Black and Wallace Shawn—a mock-angry cherub who rages mainly against himself. At Bumbershoot, one gag went like this: Look at me, I'm so fat, I'm so pathetic, I'm so old, "I have an eating shirt!" At other shows, he comes down into the audience to heckle himself.
Steven Feinartz's documentary The Bitter Buddha (8 p.m. Sat.) is plainly intended to boost Pepitone's career, and it's filled with gushing testimonials from his younger, more famous colleagues. These include Zach Galifianakis, Sarah Silverman, and Patton Oswalt, who says Pepitone's authenticity stems from "decades of fear and failure." And Oswalt says that like it's a good thing: from suffering, art.
There is Pekar-esque pathos as Feinartz follows Pepitone on his Los Angeles comedy rounds—honking at motorists, performing on small stages, trying to land TV gigs, cursing at his computer, and playing with the many cats in his cluttered apartment. (There's a girlfriend, so his life isn't entirely sad.) His buddies like Oswalt and Marc Maron may admire Pepitone, but I'm not sure they can identify with his flop sweat and obscurity. He's their pet project, their not-quite-charity case.
And where has Pepitone been the past three decades? We see a few videos from the '80s, suggesting some kind of Brecht/Richard Foreman performance-art background, and there's mention of his being "off his meds" and "drinking and smoking"—smoking what, we wonder. Besides introducing Pepitone's now-proud father back on Staten Island, The Bitter Buddha doesn't delve into the past. But if you need proof that Pepitone is part of the comedy present—yes, he's even on Twitter.
(Note: Feinartz and Pepitone will appear at the screening for a Q&A. Pepitone will also perform at Laff Hole at Chop Suey, 1325 E. Madison St., peoplesrepublicofkomedy.com, $10, 9 p.m. Wed., Feb. 20.)
After The Sessions, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Winter's Bone, John Hawkes has finally graduated from "that guy" to "that Oscar-nominated guy!" He's got a seasoned, sinewy intensity, with a muscular squint to rival Clint Eastwood's, but a gentle core. He's Zen-still at his center, and his acting shrugs off excess—like some cheap, gaudy garment that doesn't fit him.
I am not sure, however, that Hawkes should alone be carrying a movie. In The Sessions, he had colorful help from Helen Hunt and William H. Macy. In Arcadia (8 p.m. Fri.), he's essentially surrounded by child actors while playing Tom, a harried father driving his clan across the country in an old Chevy station wagon. Tom is not a terrific father. He tries hard, but he also gets into a traffic altercation that leads to the police station. Say what I told you, he instructs the kids—"Sometimes you have to lie." And where's their mother? Tom is vague and shifty about that, walking off alone to make angry, mysterious calls on his flip-phone (a box full of Polaroids also gives the film an '80s vibe). There's talk of a job in California, but their path from Connecticut is awfully meandering. When one kid scribbles a "Help, we're being kidnapped!" note in the car window, you're not so sure it's in jest.
With a younger brother and an older teen sister, 12-year-old Greta (Ryan Simpkins) is the film's real protagonist. It's through her eyes that we see Tom—and grow to doubt him. Greta clamps on headphones to shut out the world with the Smiths (again, '80s?), but she also wanders away from a hotel to peer at the sordid adult world. She's almost ready for boys, makeup, and nail polish, even while dragging around a stuffed rabbit. That too-conspicuous childhood token unfortunately typifies director Olivia Silver's debut feature. She clearly wants to invest this awkward family road trip with meaning, but most of it seems banal, ordinary. (When Tom gets the kids to sing the theme from Rawhide, it's like a bizarre re-enactment of National Lampoon's Vacation.) The pedestrian writing—"I'm sorry I don't have all the answers"—doesn't help an already uneventful trip.
I've driven across the U.S. several times, but the 91-minute Arcadia feels like a longer ride. (Silver will attend the screening.)