Saturday, December 14, 2013


Blake Freeman's A Journey to Planet Sanity is everything that's good and bad about documentaries. It starts out earnestly enough - Freeman meets Leroy Tessina, a 68-year-old delivery man who believes in any crackpot theory involving UFOs, psychics, and the paranormal. Leroy has even invented a helmet he wears to bed to prevent space aliens from reading his mind. Realizing Leroy is going broke by visiting psychics and spending money on UFO paraphernalia, Freeman takes it upon himself to change Leroy's thinking. He brings the old-timer to several UFO conventions, psychic healers, and ghost busters; the predictable comedy ensues.

After a while, Leroy sees that he's been spending his money and his time on a lot of hokum. Their journey is occasionally funny, but by the end of it, Leroy's depressed. Not only has he wasted his life on a lot of nonsense, but he reveals to Freeman that he's about to lose his home. Hearing him talk about his life is genuinely heartbreaking. Having invested so much in Leroy, Freeman decides to help him. The way they save Leroy's home is entertaining, and in the end, everybody feels good.
As I watched the first half of the film, I thought Freeman was hitting too many easy targets. It's no challenge to make UFO followers and psychics look silly, and Freeman comes off as a smarmy know-it-all looking down his nose at these people. Also,  I didn't buy Freeman's grandstanding that "society" had forced Leroy into the position he was in by force feeding him tales of alien abductions. There are also moments in the movie that seem right out of Jackass. After a voodoo priestess puts a curse on Freeman, he spends what are supposed to be his last 24 hours doing dumb stunts, like donning a red tutu and picking a fight with some homophobic neo-Nazis. I really disliked this part of the film.  It had the plastic "real, but not real" sense of reality TV shows, where everyone acts up for the camera, and we're supposed to laugh at the crudity of it all. The worst culprits here are a pair Freeman meets at a UFO convention, one who believes he is half-alien, and another who believes he can summon alien aircraft by chanting. Freeman brings them aboard to help stop the end of the world (according the Mayan calendar, which, if you recall,  predicted we wouldn't be here after 12/21/12). It's mildly amusing to see these loons arguing in the van, but it also feels forced. Freeman works in Hollywood, and you can sense him thinking, 'This'll be funny! We'll get these nuts together!' Meanwhile, Leroy simply seems happy to be out of the house.
The film's hook, and what keeps it from being just a run of the mill look at UFO crackpots, is that Freeman discovers Leroy's interest in painting. Apparently, when Leroy wasn't designing helmets to ward off aliens, he busied himself in his garage by creating a bunch of Jackson Pollock knockoffs. To save Leroy's home, Freeman puts several of Leroy's paintings on display at a local gallery, and even gives Leroy a makeover to pass him off as a French artist. Just as I suspected might happen, enough local LA phonies buy Leroy's artwork that he is able to pay off his debts.
The lesson here, I guess, is that the selling of abstract art is just about as bogus as the selling of UFO hysteria and psychic healing. A con is a con, and a buck is a buck. At least Leroy doesn't end up homeless. Freeman, too, seems to open up his heart by the film's end, showing what seems to be a real concern for Leroy. I liked their friendship. I wasn't crazy about Freeman at first, but by the end of the movie I felt we should all be so lucky to meet someone like him. "You screwed my head up," Leroy says at one point. "But you did it the right way."

And the good part of documentaries? Well, it's always kind of eerie to me that if you keep a camera on someone long enough, a story emerges. Freeman couldn't have known that Leroy would come so close to losing his home. Yet, that's what gives A Journey to Planet Sanity its drama. Without that final third, the film would've been another  snide look at UFO hucksters. It ended up a surprisingly touching film about one person helping another.

* * *  
Poor Neil LaBute. Judging by his films and plays, he lives in a world where people heap tons of mental abuse on each other, and manipulate each other like chess pieces. His male characters are arrogant and don't think much of women, and the women in his stories are either dumb, or shrewish. Although I haven't checked to make sure, I think someone usually gets raped in his films. I wouldn't want to be a character in his films. I wouldn't want to be Neil LaBute.

His latest, Some Velvet Morning, plays like a greatest hits collection, with all of the usual one-upmanship, mental game-playing, and hostility between the sexes that we know from LaBute's previous work. Stanley Tucci plays Fred, an angry middle-aged man who has left his wife to take up with Velvet (Alice Eve), an old lover he hasn't been with in four years. To make things more complicated, she once had a relationship with his son, and eventually reveals that she acted as a prostitute to get her self through school. Fred and Velvet banter, bicker, argue, declare their love, admit that it won't work, and so on and so on. She wants him to leave. He won't leave. LaBute wants us to be titillated by the violence and hate percolating under the dialog.  It feels like  play, a heavy-handed writer's workshop edition by someone who has read too much Pinter and Albee. Then Tucci rapes her.

There's a surprise ending that plays pretty well and might make you think you've seen something worthwhile. That all depends on how you feel about sitting through 90 minutes for a 30-second twist at the end. The ending is just a step above "It was all a dream," but some viewers have been really amused by it. I wasn't. Still, Tucci is very good as the embittered Fred, and Eve is excellent as the weary, vulnerable Velvet. They're good enough to transcend LaBute's ham-fisted cheap joke of a script.


No comments:

Post a Comment