The Final Member
Runs Fri., April 18–Thurs., April 24 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 75 minutes.
“My dad has been collecting penises as long as I can remember,” says the daughter of Sigurdur Hjartarson, curator of the Icelandic Phallological Museum, who proudly displays his samples from every mammal, from a 2mm hamster penis bone to a sperm-whale specimen that looks like a six-foot geoduck. Every mammal, that is, except one—and the quest to be the first human enshrined, in an odd sort of reverse tontine, is the subject of Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math’s beautifully crafted documentary. The two candidates are Páll, a dapper elderly man who can already claim to have Iceland’s best-known organ (his sexual conquests, he says, number circa 500—not bad in a nation of only 300,000). His rival is Tom, a Californian who . . . well, just wants his penis to be famous. (He’s nicknamed it, and imagines it as a comic-book hero.) Páll seems the front runner, for patriotic reasons; then again, there are shrinkage issues at 93. Also, Hjartarson would really prefer his exhibit to be of “legal length”—five inches, as defined by an old Icelandic folk poem: “One in the hair, one in the skin, and a third and a fourth and a fifth one in.”
It gets better, much better, but I can’t say more, because Bekhor and Math’s adroit deployment of each WTF and OMG plot twist is what makes the film so completely absorbing. It’s this adroitness, even more than the abundant humor (there’s no deadpan like Scandinavian deadpan), which might make you suspect it’s all a scripted put-on. It isn’t, but this is sublime storytelling, right up to the poignance of the ending. Of course you expect documentarians to be sympathetic to the human need to be remembered, but The Final Member’s tenderness toward its subjects transcends the norm and remains long after you’ve gotten all the chuckles out of your system.