What is it about the complete lack of faith in the government and the consistent empowerment of white supremacists that tickles so many so-called liberal filmmakers? Last year it was director Adam McKay’s “Vice,” and now it’s “Mister America,” director Eric Notarnicola’s uncomfortable mockumentary presumably meant to parody modern political decay.
But because it is filmed like a documentary, with an uncomfortably convincing central performance by actor and co-writer Tim Heidecker, it almost does seem like a completely unqualified Tim really is running for San Bernardino district attorney. In today’s political climate, where a man was elected president of the United States just weeks after being accused of sexual harassment, it wouldn’t be unbelievable to watch a similarly unfit white guy, who also narrowly escaped criminal prosecution, confidently run for major office.
Heidecker, most famous for his “Tim & Eric” series on Adult Swim, really leans into the audience’s already established fear of a delusional, mediocre white guy who has the aplomb of a man with three PhDs and a Pulitzer Prize. And it’s absolutely grating to watch. Even worse, there’s not one humorous moment throughout its nearly 90-minute runtime.
Heidecker’s exasperating portrayal includes a constant deflection from an equally realistic crime of second degree mass murder after “unknowingly” selling poisonous e-cigarettes to clubgoers at an EDM festival. Sure, it’s ridiculous that a man like this was involved in a very serious, horrific crime. But this narrative seems careless, if not callous, in light of actual deaths at music events in recent years.
There seems to be an assumption that this brand of humor is soothing for audiences overwhelmed by its frightening inspirations. But “Mister America” isn’t offering any insight into why its subject is problematic, or even really suggesting that he might be. It takes no stance whatsoever, merely presenting his story to incite horror, or fury, and taking zero accountability for any of it.
It’s a noteworthy moment when cinematographer Gabriel Patay (“Mitt”) leaves the camera secretly rolling on the floor after he and the rest of the crew are dismissed, so Tim and his equally bigoted assistant Toni Newman (Terri Parks) can fake their own ballots in a race they are categorically losing. We watch, horrified, as it’s all caught on tape in a very “Hard Copy” kind of way. It’s a conscious storytelling decision, perhaps the only moment that makes it clear that the fictional documentarian isn’t actually on Tim’s side, possibly proving some much-needed subjectivity on his part. But it’s a presumption that is ultimately ungrounded as the film never really winks at the audience like this again.
Instead, we just watch Tim implode, completely unaware of himself. He strolls into hair salons and other establishments heavily populated by black and brown people and robustly promotes his pro-white agenda for the community to an irate crowd. He’s disregarded by the current district attorney Vincent Rossetti (Don Pecchia) — an immigrant “rat,” as Tim calls him — who doesn’t even show up to their town hall debate. That’s because it was Vincent who tried to prosecute Tim during his murder trial, where he was acquitted because, of course, white men always get off. Get it?
“Mister America” merely underscores recognizable themes that are no less irritating in mockumentary form than they are in real life: White supremacy, miscarriages of justice and racial disenfranchisement in a community where the leaders have all but abandoned minority residents. But the film needs to say something about it rather than merely hold up a mirror to it.
Then there’s the matter of Gregg Turkington (playing himself or something adjacent to that), another one of Tim’s many arch-nemeses. He also co-wrote the screenplay (along with Heidecker and Notarnicola), and his character is affiliated with the Heidecker’s onscreen persona through the “On Cinema” brand, which is a source of heated tension between the two in the film. The explosive, and entirely believable, town hall scene with Tim standing in front of a sparse audience debating literally no one results in Gregg showing up uninvited, only to antagonize Tim about his lack of ownership to “On Cinema.” It’s the kind of peak pettiness that you can totally see occurring between two equally inconsequential men.
Maybe that’s the point Heidecker et al are attempting to make here — how even white men can so easily capitalize off mediocrity. But that’s not exactly breaking news, so going through all the trouble of making a full-length movie that lampoons the idea seems like a lot of wasted effort that could have been better spent actually interrogating the issues it highlights.
There’s just not enough space (and time, really) between reality and satire that allows “Mister America” to provoke the laughs the filmmakers think it deserves from the audience. At this point, we’re apathetic.
For the record: A previous version of this story referencing the Pulse nightclub shooting and Fyre Festival has been removed.