jerry-stiller.jpgIt’s difficult to determine what is more frustrating, the fact that Jerry Stiller is probably best known for his work on Seinfeld and King of Queens, when he should be recognized for so much more, or the fact that Stiller’s first leading man role in his career that spans five decades is in a well-intentioned but flawed film like The Independent. As a character actor who has been around for decades, it is understandable how someone like Stiller can be both known and unknown at the same time—he is the sort of actor who brings life to every scene he’s in, but is seldom called upon to carry the entire show. But the fact of the matter is that character actors like Stiller are perfectly capable of carrying the entire show, provided they are given the right opportunity; which is what makes The Independent frustrating. Here is a vehicle that is perfect for showcasing Stiller’s comedic talent, while at the same time failing to live up to its fullest potential.

Stiller stars as Morty Fineman, the legendary B-movie auteur of questionable talent who has none-the-less managed to make 427 films. But even with such titles as Foxy Chocolate Robot and Bald Justice to his credit, Morty is teetering on the brink of complete ruin. He can’t get anyone to finance his new film, he’s heavily in debt, and the bank is looking to seize his assets. With the help of his cynical daughter Paloma (Janeane Garofalo) and his trusty assistant Ivan (Max Perlich), Morty chases after every opportunity to salvage his career, which includes making a film based on the life of serial killer on death row, who happens to be his biggest fan. But the fact of the matter is that no matter how many films he has made, or how many testimonials he may get from other Hollywood players, Morty Fineman no longer matters in the broad scheme of things, and he will be lucky if his massive back catalog of films can be sold for eight dollars per pound.

Directed by Stephen Kessler, who co-wrote the script with Mike Wilkins, The Independent is one of the films that has a great concept that is only used to marginal success. It looks great on paper, and even sounds good in the pitch, but when you sit to watch it, you’re left with the feeling of, “Is that it?”

Pinpointing where The Independent goes wrong can be difficult, because it goes wrong in several key places. First and foremost is the decision to present the film as if it were a documentary being made about Fineman’s life and career. Kessler deviates enough from the documentary approach that when he returns to it, it comes as almost a shock and leaves you thinking, “Oh…that’s right…this is supposed to be a documentary.” And then of course there is the absurdist comedy that takes the film out of any sense of reality, like Morty’s ex-wife (Stiller’s real wife, Anne Meara) who lives with her chauffer in the back of a Rolls Royce. As a joke, that might work in farce, but in a film that wants to be a mockumentary, and thereby something that can be passed off as being almost real, jokes like that, or Morty accidentally killing an actor with no repercussions, comes across like filmmakers not knowing what type of comedy they are making. That is to say that from a filmmaking standpoint, the comedic foundation of The Independent lacks discipline and cohesion. It feels like it was made by people who thought the whole thing was going to be much easier than it really was.

To get an idea of how comedically out-of-touch the filmmakers are, all you have to do is check out the deleted scenes on the DVD. Each deleted scene has a title card that explains why it did not make it into the final cut of the movie. In the case of Ebony, Fawn & Jade, a Morty Fineman women-in-prison classic, the filmmakers cut the sequence because “we didn’t think it had enough laughs to make it into the final cut.” The fact that this deleted sequence is funnier than at least half the scenes in The Independent, and that the filmmakers cut it because it wasn’t funny enough, should serve as ample warning of what you’re up against with this film.

Although The Independent is inspired by real-life exploitation filmmakers like Roger Corman and Samuel Z. Arkoff, it never feels like Kessler or Wilkins know that much about the world of B-movie making, and have instead been informed by movies like Kentucky Fried Movie and Amazon Women on the Moon. Coming up with funny film titles to spoof B-movie clichés and conventions is well and good, and it’s even funnier when you have some sort of footage to back up these ludicrous titles, but better execution overall is needed to make a film succeed on all levels. Had Kessler and Wilkins really put their minds to it, The Independent could have been a great cross between Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion, and the wonderful documentary Mau Mau Sex Sex, about sexploitation filmmakers David Friedman and Dan Sonney. Instead, they have made a film that comes across like a bio of Samuel L. Bronkowitz.

The Independent is not a terrible film so much as it is a forgettable film that is salvaged by Jerry Stiller’s performance. Stiller does a great job with the material he has been given—as does the rest of the cast—but the film itself can only be so good, because the material itself is only so good. John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols) has a supporting role that is not only a waste of his talent, but also pretty unremarkable. And that’s what makes The Independent so frustrating to watch—it is a great film that is never allowed to be great. What that leaves you with is a film that is just okay. There are some very funny moments (some where you even laugh out loud), but as a whole, this is a film that started with a great idea, but got lost somewhere along the way.



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