In the, ahem, art and science of tailoring media to reach a desired demographic audience, there is an uncanny valley. You can cut too close to reality, and rather than fooling the reader you disgust them. Of course, it’s context-dependent — it’s most noticeable when you’re not the desired demographic. It’s least noticeable in a context of people easily fooled, for instance, which is why sensory deprivation, over stimulation and booze are often used to lull an audience into anomie.
I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell pulled out all these stops in an effort to bring Tucker Max’s brand of debauchery to a wider audience at a San Francisco premiere last Thursday at the Metreon, which Max felt went well. Max is best known for his blog and Web site, TuckerMax.com, in which he started chronicling his escapades as a young man in America, with antics fueled by lust and class privilege.
It is a remarkably common story, but serves more of a niche in the world of anthropology than comedy. If you want into the mind of a generation of white men schooled in the traditions of Chicago economics and Duke law (read: Republicans) then Max is your man.
Because while making its claim to being candid by being unrelentingly puerile, its title and story arc bare the trite contrition of the unremorseful charlatan. Glennbeckodile Tears, if you will.
But there is much to recommend the lifestyle of a charlatan, and frankly, it’s often not a matter if we try to hoodwink everyone all the time (we do), but what the consequences are when we’re found out.
At least that’s what I learned from Beer, reinforced by selections from the blog. And for Max, consequences have been few.
In the penultimate scene of the film, which has been rendered a little more fancifully than the original story online, he leaves a trail of diarrhea across a hotel lobby — and the maid to clean it up.
The feel-good ending has the Max character (Matt Czuchry) telling the story again, this time promising to have mopped up his own mess. Ah! But this is Max we’re talking about, and the really feel good ending for those who aspire to his enviable consequence-free lifestyle, the twist is that in truth he solved the problem with money, just as he had solved pretty much every problem his character in the film confronted.
Which is ironic for a production that took a commendable chance on going its own way in declining a distribution deal. Traditionally, independent films sell their rights to a distributor in exchange for an up-front cash sum and a small portion of potential sales, with the distributor funding the marketing effort. Befitting a man who uses the Nash Equilibrium to gauge hookup scenarios for maximal benefit to self and friend, he saw that racket for what it was and declined.
But that racket crushed him with The Hangover, which was essentially a Tucker Max movie you could take your girlfriend to (the one you think is marriage material, anyway). Essentially the same premise (“Barely post-adolescent men take a trip, bachelor party hijinks ensue, everyone grows a little”), it provided an object lesson of how Hollywood is still the master of co-opting your niche while giving the subject broad appeal — and it’s made nearly $300 million so far, four orders of magnitude larger than Beer‘s opening weekend gross.
The thin-dime production could have used a lot of help in post, as there were noticeable breaks in sound and picture (to be fair, Hangover‘s production was nothing that will be studied in film school). What a lot of indiewood dreamers don’t understand is that El Mariachi looks great for a $7,000 film — that was cleaned up with millions in post-production time and money, and pushed with millions more in marketing.
And Mariachi at least had a decent script. Beer? Not so much. The screenplay was my first encounter with Max’s self-proclaimed genius. But beyond Gawker‘s incessant harping on Max, I honestly didn’t know the guy or his work beyond friends who duly noticed his popularity and relative success while lamenting the material, and went into the thing fairly cold. And I honestly gave it some benefit of the doubt — after all, Miller, Kerouac and Bukowski all built well-regarded literary careers on accounts of caddish antics.
The film’s chauvinism is so shocking that it’s easy to see why many can’t get past it. Even in the testosterone-filled world of Entourage, the basic insecurity in typical bro banter comes off as sort of sad and vulnerable and therefore relatively unobjectionable, even endearing. But the tirades from Drew (Jesse Bradford) have a violent undertone that’s a little too sincere. To her credit, eventual love interest Lara (Marika Dominczyk) gives as good as she gets, and frankly steals the show. The performers generally did a commendable job with the raw material, but couldn’t entirely bury the subtext.
To Max’s credit, that subtext clearly promotes the sexual agency of women to say “yes.” The opening scene, where a gamey bout in the kitchen is broken up by the police, his noisy accomplice turns out to be deaf. It’s not her fault she can’t hear herself, and the further implication is, who’s to blame her for wanting to bump uglies with a boy? No one. Max is no white knight, but then the white knight impulse assumes damsels are in distress and need saving, a point the movie also makes.
I would argue that it has a somewhat significant value as a cultural artifact, especially including the media coverage and protests it has generated. In our brief phone interview, when asked about being maligned by Gawker, he joked “Thanks for the free publicity.”
Probably because it is so much closer to the reality of how gender, race and class are actually lived in much of America, it’s captivated the chattering classes (who all have their own blog-to-book deals fermenting). And it should prove to serve as a business case study in the still nascent crossover appeal of films produced to serve the interests of an audience already cultivated online and in books, not to mention independent theatrical distribution (I have a feeling that Max will at least break even once online and DVD sales are calculated).
But would I recommend it to my bros? Not really. Unless you’re wondering how you’ll defend yourself to gender theorists, or, you know, you’re drunk with your buddies, you probably won’t be able to cross the uncanny valley and sit through the whole thing. And if you do enjoy it, you’ll probably feel a little dirty. And maybe that, after all, is the point?
Jackson West feels for the publicists, who had a tough row to hoe with this project, and forgives unreplied-to email.