THE INDEPENDENT (2000) / Comedy

Running Length: 80 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language, some violence, and sexuality.

Cast: Jerry Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Max Perlich, Fred Williamson, Nick Cassavetes, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Ted Demme, Karen Black, Roger Corman
Director: Stephen Kessler
Producer: United Lotus Group
Screenplay: Stephen Kessler

There’s no doubt that Jerry Stiller has made a career for himself as one of the most prolific and recognizable character actors out there. His personality for each character is usually the same – bellicose, boisterous, and brash – and because of this, he’s immediately identifiable. While he has appeared in quite a number of films, Stiller is more known for his television work and will undoubtedly be remembered as either the misguided Arthur Spooner of “King of Queens” or the ornery Frank Costanza of “Seinfeld.”

Here is The Independent, a look at the life of eccentric independent film maker Morty Fineman (Stiller) as his career slowly and steadily spirals downwards, and he becomes the focus of a two-man documentary crew. Fineman is the definition of a true independent filmmaker; a man whose own blind ambition is far greater than his talent. His films are those same trashy, low budget exploitation flicks the likes of Larry Cohen and John Waters made. They’re not bad on purpose; they’re made with the intent of being good, which makes them all the more awful.

Upon experiencing his final bouts of bankruptcy, Fineman calls in his estranged and relied-upon daughter Paloma (Janeane Garofalo) for council. He has his assistant Ivan (Max Perlich) searching for a film festival that’s willing to showcase his oeuvre. A comeback is what he needs to get back on top, but luck rarely comes his way. And to make matters worse, he’s operating out of a fleabag motel.

Like This Is Spinal Tap and Zelig, The Independent mainly benefits from its own authenticity. The film’s story is intercut with stock footage from cheap grindhouse flicks and interviews with real-life film makers and actors, making everything seem more factual. It hits pretty close to home, accurately depicting the troubles of independent film making and doing so in a comic vein. Of course, since the film is shot in a half-mockumentary, half-narrative style, we don’t actually ever “believe” in any of it, but this doesn’t at all detract from the viewing experience, even though some might find it a bit irritating.

Stiller is a riot as Fineman, the director oblivious to his own ineptitude. He gives a superb comedic performance (including the deadpan reaction he gives when having his work brutally criticized) and hits all the right notes. His persona and celebrity status make him perfect for this role and bring more depth to his character, the aging legend trying to make one final comeback. Such could be said about Stiller and this film. In all of the areas that it sags, he pulls through, consistently drawing laughs whether it be through action or dialogue. Sometimes he just yells and it works. I tell you I could laugh at this guy just by him standing there alone eating an ice cream cone.

But that’s not saying there isn’t any room for improvement. The director, Stephen Kessler, goes so over the top in a couple of instances that he loses any credibility. Satire is best done in a subtle manner and comes off as silly when taken too literally. The entire impact as dimmed. That being said, the premise does hold up — for the most part – and The Independent delivers both in smarts and laughs, and goes to show how truly good a film on such a low budget can be.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

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