“Nuts!” is aptly named — in a good way. Director Penny Lane (“Our Nixon”) chronicles the zany, true story of eccentric megalomaniac doctor John Romulus Brinkley in an inventive, whimsical and surprisingly fascinating way. It’s one of the more original and playful documentaries of recent years.
The key to its appeal is the deft melding of style, structure and substance. Lane drops in a few well-chosen talking heads and archival photographs, but most of this documentary-drama hybrid is driven by drolly animated hand-drawn re-enactments in tones of sepia, black and white and a few muted colors.
The opening shot features a pair of animated randy goats doing what randy goats do; it’s hard to imagine any other serious tale that could be told in this daffy fashion. Concomitantly, it’s impossible to conceive of a better way of presenting this oddball saga. Audiences are introduced, seduced, bamboozled then enlightened by Lane’s unpredictable dramatic structure
At some point during his ascendance from barefoot poverty to well-heeled affluence, Brinkley may have literally been a snake oil salesman. But his quirky medical practice is where things take off: In the 1920s and ’30s, Brinkley becomes famous for operations in which he implants impotent men with billy goat testicles. (“The Men Who Stare at Goats,” indeed.)
Among the alleged recipients of Brinkley’s bovine wonder cure were William Jennings Bryan and Rudolph Valentino. Woodrow Wilson was rumored to have been a patient.
Much of the film draws heavily on Clement Wood’s biography of Brinkley. This being a genre-busting doc, however, all is not as it seems. Lane nimbly manipulates the viewer in this story of a quintessentially American huckster, but her evasive cinematic machinations are well worth enduring.
Brinkley’s story reads like classic American fiction, or even the stuff of musical theater, but Brinkley makes the slick Harold Hill from “The Music Man” look like an earnest do-gooder by comparison. This farcical variation on the Horatio Alger story feels oddly resonant in contemporary times. Brinkley’s astounding ascendance from “irregular doctor” to radio broadcaster and brashly successful millionaire gubernatorial candidate can’t help but put viewers in mind of a particular blustering presidential aspirant.
In fact, Brinkley’s medical degree was from a shady-sounding institution that might have been the Trump University of its day — Kansas City Eclectic Medical University. He made his name in the American heartland town of Milford, Kansas, population: 300. His pioneering surgery, and its Brinkley Sanitarium, soon made the town swell to a population of 5,000.
With an eye for exploiting new inventions, Brinkley discovered the power of radio. In 1923 he created America’s fourth radio station, which became the most powerful radio station in the world. He used it as a platform to sell his medicinal tonics, along with showcasing the music of crooning cowboys and hillbilly singers. He is even credited with the rise of country music on radio.
The unexpectedly suspenseful drama has an unusually weird cast of characters, which include not just Brinkley but also his determined antagonist, Morris Fishbein of the recently-founded American Medical Association and the federal regulatory commission that was the forerunner to the FCC. But this is not exactly a David and Goliath story, although Brinkley’s self-depiction as a little guy/misunderstood genius up against the traditional establishment did temporarily render him a folk hero. Plumping up Brinkley’s populist appeal was a campaign slogan: “Every man a king.”
Lane takes an intriguing — even devious — turn about two-thirds of the way into this appealingly loopy film, making it the rare documentary with a bona fide plot twist. Suffice it to say that this savvy director plays with history and viewers’ conceptions of traditional documentary filmmaking, expounding in a way upon Stephen Colbert‘s concept of “truthiness.”
While offering plenty of deadpan humor, “Nuts!” is also a riveting account of American entrepreneurial spirit gone awry. Lane balances interviews with knowledgeable, but dry, historians and experts with lurid newspaper headlines, audio clips and lively sketch-style animated sequences, which gives this absorbing story just the right tone, eliciting equal parts astonishment, laughter and horror.
Some moments teeter on the cutesy, but the potency of one man’s astute ability to self-promote, combined with the gullibility of the masses, makes the story resonate with contemporary overtones. It’s a fascinating hybrid: a curiosity crossed with a cautionary tale.
“Nuts!” is a brisk, engrossing, tongue-in-cheek film that unfolds at just the right pace — and it’s a piece of American history that couldn’t feel more relevant to modern times.