Can you trust a documentary that’s set in the world of professional wrestling, where the action is scripted and the storylines are phony?
Can you believe what you see in a nonfiction film about an actor who has always to some degree approached his career like an extended piece of performance art?
And if you don’t trust it and you can’t believe it, can you still be entertained and maybe even touched by “You Cannot Kill David Arquette?”
I’d say the answers to those questions are no, no and hell, yeah.
A documentary that sends up more red flags than a MAGA rally, “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” is nonetheless a robust (albeit bloody) piece of entertainment. And it’s also a character study of a guy who’s revealing himself to us regardless of whether what we’re seeing is reality or construction.
The film, which opens digitally and on VOD on Aug. 28 after its SXSW world premiere was a casualty of the coronavirus, is directed by David Darg and Price James and produced by Arquette’s wife, Christina McLarty Arquette, among others. In a way, it’s as silly and as nakedly needy as Arquette himself, and as theatrical and stagey as any professional wrestling match – but along the way, it also manages to be kind of fun and to make you feel for the goodhearted, sad-sack clown at its center.
Or maybe he’s just playing a goodhearted, sad-sack clown. Who knows? The film drops in on Arquette at what we’re told is a low point in his career: “I’ve been auditioning for 10 years without getting anything,” he says, though he must have gotten some roles without auditioning in that time since IMDb lists 56 acting roles since 2010.
But he says that Hollywood won’t take him seriously – and part of that dates back to 2012 when he promoted the wrestling-themed movie “Ready to Rumble” by making some appearances at events put on by the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling. In what might have been the most hated storyline in the history of professional wrestling, and one he resisted when it was first proposed to him, Arquette “won” the WCW championship and held it for all of 12 days; it turned him into a pariah with wrestling fans, who want their fake storylines to involve beefy combatants who at least look as if they belong in the ring.
“I’m just kind of sick of being a joke, to be honest with you,” Arquette says in the film. “If you’re a part of the joke, it’s not as painful as if you are the joke.”
His grand plan is to “clear his name” and redeem himself by going back to wrestling, showing respect for the sport he’s loved since he was a kid. Never mind that he recently had a heart attack, that he has two stints in his heart and he’s on two blood-thinning medications; never mind that he suffers from crippling anxiety, according to his wife, and that he freaks out on camera when a doctor gives him a Ketamine injection for his depression.
Though Arquette may be best known for playing a goofball detective in the “Scream” movies, or for being married to Courtney Cox at the height of her “Friends” fame, the opening stretch of the film paints a pretty sad portrait of the actor, even he manages to be mildly endearing as he battles (or pretends to battle) his demons in front of the camera.
His sisters, Patricia and Rosanna, are around to be skeptical of his determination to rehabilitate his reputation and uphold “the majesty of wrestling,” as are his kids and his ex-wife, Cox.
And it’s easy to think they’ve got a point when Arquette ends up in a run-down motel that’s hosting the saddest wrestling convention ever, where he sits in the corner with a stack of photos that nobody wants him to sign. Then the promoter takes him a backyard wrestling event that’s so makeshift that the ring collapses and has to be rebuilt between matches – an event that ends with Arquette bloodied, beaten, humiliated and mocked by a bunch of amateurs young enough to be his kids.
It’s one of many scenes that smack of the wrestler’s world of kayfabe, where fictions play out with a straight face and the audience willingly goes along for the ride. And it sets up the clear narrative in “You Cannot Kill David Arquette”: Everybody makes fun of the guy, he works hard and redeems himself, and the music whips up every little victory – from training sessions with Diamond Dallas Page to Mexican Lucha libre wrestling in Tijuana to bigger matches back in the U.S. – into a grand triumph.
Through it all, Arquette is game and unashamed; this is a guy who gets a kick out of letting the cameras film him getting a ludicrous spray tan, naked except for a sack for his genitals, and then lets them film him scrubbing it off in the shower because he’d forgotten he was supposed to go to a movie premiere.
“It’s like theater on steroids,” Arquette says of wrestling – and the movie has that feel, too, as it builds to a 2019 Legends of Wrestling match with Ken Anderson, who’s seen throughout the film frothing with obviously fake rage over Arquette. The film milks all that drama and pushes it into melodrama, but it also stops to let Arquette giggle about the silliness of it all, at least when he’s not bleeding. (He does a lot of bleeding.)
“I’m a mess, bro,” he says at one point. “I’ve been a mess my whole life, and I’ll probably be a mess the rest of my life, even if I’m sober.”
It’s an endearing and disturbing confession in a portrait that might play loose with the facts but probably finds some truth along the way. And that makes sense – because while Arquette calls himself an actor who wants to become a wrestler at one point, he probably hits the nail on the head a few minutes later when he confesses, “I’m a carny at heart. I’m a carny.”