“I’m like an empty bottle / Drained of everything left in my mind / Checking out life on the dark side / Riding down the road ’til the end of time.” — “Empty Bottle” by Dekkar.
Mister America follows a fictionalized Tim Heidecker (Tim Heidecker) during his run for San Bernadino District Attorney, despite his lack of legal credentials or permanent residency in the county. His sole motivation is revenge against Vincent Rosetti (Don Pecchia), the sitting D.A. who prosecuted Tim’s murder trial — which ended in a hung jury and freedom for Mr. Heidecker. His run does not go well. Why would it?
Mister America isn’t so much a parody of our present political predicament as it is a dark, funny and surprisingly thoughtful character study about two useless men trapped in an endless, closed orbit around one another.
That’s because the faux-documentary is peppered by appearances by self-proclaimed movie expert Gregg Turkington (played by the real Gregg Turkington), whose storied relationship with Tim can only be described as “more than brothers, less than wives.” The two men host a movie-review program called On Cinema at the Cinema, wherein they provide completely meaningless insight on the latest cinematic releases.
Heidecker and Turkington — referred to in their real-life capacities by last name for clarity from this point on — started On Cinema at the Cinema as a podcast; it is now a 10-plus season show on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. The endeavor started when the two real-life comedians were joking around on the set The Comedy, their 2011 film, when the podcast boom began and it seemed like every comedian was trying to be the next Marc Maron or Chris Hardwick. Tim and Gregg have almost nothing substantial to say about movies, despite speaking from a place of “expertise.” (You can actually watch the first eight seasons in a 12-hour YouTube video.)
For the past several years, the duo has also hosted live Oscar specials that coincide with the annual awards ceremony, which features — amongst other jokes — Gregg’s quixotic quest for The Hobbit to win best picture by write-in. On Cinema also spawned the action-comedy Decker, which takes place within the fictional On Cinema Universe. The two men’s Twitter accounts take part, interacting with fans. They have a live show, a guidebook and an inactive iPhone app. The courtroom events critical to Mister America took place in a five-hour, elaborately detailed mock-courtroom drama, The Trial.
On Cinema is in every way a cult series, right up to and including actual “Gregghead” and “Timhead” monikers that fans use to interact with one another. But what started as a parody of internet movie culture has morphed into an ongoing story of two men who can’t quit one another because, ultimately, they’re all they have. Tim’s insane, Sisyphean struggles always involve schemes to gain personal power at the cost of family and bodily health. He always fails.
By contrast, Gregg has a disturbing and singleminded obsession with terrible mainstream movies. He spends his days building the Victorville Film Archive, a collection of VHS tapes gathered largely from trash cans and second-hand stores that he boasts is the “largest movie collection in the world.” In many ways, Gregg is the kind of person I remember helping while working at Half-Price Books, who could tell you reams of useless trivia about any subject but probably not much else. And as a self-proclaimed film critic, it’s hard not to empathize with him. His character is an idiot, but his passion never ends. It sustains him. Tim’s an idiot, too, lashing out against a world that confounds him because he’s endlessly lazy and awful. The two are a match made in heaven. Their ongoing saga is deadpan-dumb at the highest level. Its blend of ironic humor and deep character work has sustained its ever-growing fan base for almost a decade.
Mister America is set after the 10th season of the show and picks up certain plot threads and inside jokes from the span of the series. To wit, Gregg and Tim are estranged at the start of the film. Audiences uninitiated into the On Cinema Universe will probably be befuddled by Mister America, which recaps relevant plot points but still relies on prior knowledge for a lot of the funniest moments.
Fans of Heidecker’s most famous work with Eric Wareheim (Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories, Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie) but not On Cinema may be surprised. Elements of that comedy are present in the use of repetition and escalating absurdity, but the visual gags, gross-out humor and celebrity cameos are absent. I can take or leave most of the Tim & Eric collaborations but love On Cinema and Mister America. The best description is that Tim & Eric create a reality that is uncomfortable and strange in which its equally strange characters exist. Mister America depicts its characters in a reality that is much closer than ours.
This is by no means a straightforward political satire. Frankly, a satirical take on American politics where a loser manages to win an important public responsibility for which he or she is unqualified is old news, irrelevant. We’re all neck-deep in that shit show. It doesn’t sidestep Trump — and incorporates Tim’s love for the orange bastard into his rhetorical stylings — but ultimately the humor of the film is more focused on how pathetic Tim and Gregg really are. Tim’s run for District Attorney in Mister America is a doomed effort the start. He has no money, no backing, no friends. His campaign manager, Toni (Terri Parks), is loyal to him only because she sees his ostentatious, bullying right-wing attitude as a perfect blend with the racist beliefs she wants in a future D.A. Her management is as inept as his candidacy. Together, they are another co-dependent pair trapped together with nowhere to go, because nobody else will (or should) listen to them.
If Mister America has any higher satirical aspirations, my choice reading is that that Tim, Gregg and Toni represent the extremes of American life in 2019, where risible people feel empowered by a perceived audience but remain, in large part, impotent jerks whose ire is disproportionately inflicted on those closest to them. Nobody gives Tim the time of day during his campaign and yet he soldiers on. Although not as openly cruel, Gregg and his obsession with his totemic archive lead to him rarely doing the right thing. The funniest sequences of the movie feature Gregg speaking to the documentary crew — ostensibly about Tim’s past crimes but unable to stay on topic, instead veering off into meaningless movie trivia and invitations to view the Victorville Film Archive (which, at this point, is a bizarre room filled with VHS tapes) Is that not so much of our discourse in a nutshell? Gregg’s insane focus is useful to Tim, who has a deep need for attention. That deep need for attention is useful to Toni, who wants to use Tim to achieve her racist ends. In turn, this gives Gregg a platform to share his pathetic archives.
A circular firing squad of self-actualized incompetents. Is this not America?
Mister America creates a story so offbeat and melancholic that it feels ripe for the picking. Hard to say whether Mister America will be laugh-out-loud funny to the general audience, but that’s clearly not the intended viewership. It’s built for fans of the existing show and will probably not appeal to viewers outside its wavelength. But if you’re already a fan of On Cinema or simply curious to see what it is all about, Mister America is a sublime experience.