Mister America is a mockumentary that feels unsettlingly real
Believe it or not, there's such a thing as satire that's too effective at ridiculing its subject: A book that leaves readers with the lingering sensation of nausea, a sitcom that's wholly indistinguishable from the daily news cycle, or a movie that sends away its viewers with a desire to take a hot shower. In each of these cases, the root problem is fidelity: Satire blurs borders between reality and fiction, and without those borders, the exercise mutates into a grotesque monster unrestrained by the fourth wall.
Mister America is just such a monster.
Eric Notarnicola owns directing credit on the film, but the chief architect is comedian Tim Heidecker, who plays a twisted version of himself as he does in the comedic movie podcast On Cinema at the Cinema; Heidecker, Notarnicola, and Gregg Turkington, Heidecker's On Cinema at the Cinema co-star, have spun Mister America from that series, which in itself feels like a low-key swipe at contemporary pop culture's insistence on shared universe franchising. But their film has nothing to do with pop and everything to do with politics. Here, Heidecker has beaten a murder charge (via hung jury) following the overdose deaths of 20 attendees, and the hospitalization of 156 others, at a music festival he hosts prior to the film's events; seeking petty revenge, he runs for district attorney of San Bernardino County with the sole intent of deposing DA Vincent Rosetti (Don Pecchia), who prosecuted his case.
America 2019 is a time and a place where facts don't matter, experience is optional, and experts are treated as either elitist or irrelevant; the politically inept target the politically savvy as public enemy number one, a morass that must be pumped out of American life. Mister America validates the anti-expert movement mockumentary-style with rickety handheld camerawork and dialogue that feels ripped straight out of press conferences. It's not just what Heidecker says, but how he says it: with outward confidence betrayed by obvious interior self-doubt, compulsively talking while stumbling over his sentences. It's the speech of a man who knows he knows nothing but doesn't particularly care, save for when other people might catch the ruse.
Mister America brings to life the speech and the speaker with stomach-churning clarity. Heidecker has no qualifications. He has no training in administering law. He isn't even interested in law except as a means to pursue his chafed personal agenda. Campaigning is foreign to him, and to his campaign manager, Toni Newman (Terri Parks). At every turn, Heidecker and Newman fail themselves: They neglect to secure press coverage for their town hall debate, which they advertise without a date and time; they try to buy an ad in the local paper but they miss the deadline; they forge signatures to get Heidecker's name on the ballot, and he still doesn't succeed; neither of his opponents bother to show up to the debate. Nothing goes Heidecker's way. Such is the cost of incompetence.
Putting the protagonist's fundamental stupidity on trial is standard practice for political farce of Mister America's make. What separates the film from its contemporaries — The Death of Stalin, Veep, Parks and Recreation, The Campaign, Loro, and Saturday Night Live among many others — is the barrier dividing consumer from content.
In The Death of Stalin, a retelling of the power struggle born in the wake of Joseph Stalin's death in 1953, none of the actors adopt Russian accents; they speak in their own, which means Steve Buscemi plays Steve Buscemi, Jason Isaacs plays Jason Isaacs, and so on, each performance a reminder that what we're watching is a lark instead of an historical account. Similarly, The Campaign builds on the performance of its leads, the devoutly unserious Zach Galifiniakis and Will Ferrell, cast here as political rivals who skirmish with one another in crossbow shooting incidents and cuckoldry. And of course there are SNL's presidential celebrity cameos, each met with cheers from an enthusiastic studio audience, a pulpit of self-satisfied humorists preaching to the choir.
Mister America lacks these conceits and contrivances. It's determinedly vérité, a totally unvarnished production whose only giveaways are obviously Heidecker, seen in Jordan Peele's Us earlier this year, and Turkington, best known for creeping people out playing anti-comedy standup comic Neil Hamburger on records, on television, and in a handful of movies. But neither of them is a household name. Theirs could be fairly qualified as a cult following. With no foreknowledge of Heidecker and Turkington's respective brands, Mister America plays too close for comfort. This could, to the unfamiliar, be a homemade political campaign piece instead of a movie made by the dudes behind Decker-Con.
There are worse problems for a film to have. It's a credit to Heidecker's talent that he so deftly captures the essence of modern right-wing American politics without forcing the gag. He organically tosses word salad; he routinely loses his train of thought; he drops buzz phrases into his proclamations under the assumption that they require no introduction or expansion; he doesn't bodyslam anyone at any point, thankfully, but he does have wild, violent outbursts and suffers no consequences for them; he cites Martin Luther King, Jr. as an inspiration when his actions and policy proposals reveal him as a man with deeply ingrained prejudices.
In short, he's a racist authoritarian strongman with zero faculty for public service, and he's brazen enough to run for office anyway. Sound familiar?
There's Tim Heidecker, the actor, and Tim Heidecker, the main character in Mister America; one's real, and the other, fortunately, is fake. Except that the fake Heidecker is such a convincing composite of everything wrong with conservative power in 2019 that he might as well be real, and this conflation of person and persona makes Mister America taste sour to the tongue. The film means to deride that power through representation and succeeds — but too well, both for its own good and the good of the audience.
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Editor's note: This piece initially misstated the year of Stalin's death. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.