Every once in a while, a heretofore unknown little indie flick punches through and does its job so well that it simply puts a big smile on your face. Such is the case with co-writers Mike Wilkins and Stephen Kessler’s The Independent, a smart, savvy, funny and colorful send-up of indie-world angst and elbow grease as filtered through the story of an aging producer-director.
Produced in 2000 but just finally released on DVD by Allumination Filmworks, The Independent stars Jerry Stiller as Morty Fineman, a wildly prolific and equally headstrong director known for cranking out “social message” flicks (Twelve Angry Men and A Baby, Bald Justice, The Man With Two Things) that blend exploitative and/or commercial elements with from-the-heart if on-the-nose sentiment. From his debut movie, The Simplex Complex (“the first film about herpes the Army ever made”), on through 427 productions, Morty has lived, breathed and eaten movies, even using a promotional gimmick contest attached to one of his productions, Diaper Service, to name his then-newborn son. (The unfortunate result: “Rat Fuck” Fineman.)
When his latest production, the euthanasia-touting Mrs. Kevorkian (starring B-movie queen Julie Strain, lampooning her own reputation), is shut down, though, Morty finds himself broke, so he and his longtime assistant (Max Perlich) turn to Morty’s semi-estranged daughter Paloma (Janeane Garofalo) to try to help find a way to save the company. The bank through which he finances his movies offers Morty a deal on the rights for his library (“$8 a pound…”), reasoning that television is a meat grinder, and Fineman makes decent enough sausage. Morty, though, balks. He’s an auteur, and his movies are his babies. Convinced that he’s just one begged-favor festival slot away from redemption, Morty plugs ahead, the prime example of underdog persistence.
The Independent bills itself, not unjustly, as being in the tradition of Bowfinger and Waiting for Guffman, but what’s perhaps most pleasing is the manner in which its makers’ obvious affection for the indie filmmaking world shines through. Yes, the movie is filled with interviews from Morty’s celebrity friends and clips from his 30 years of films, and told in a cinema verité style which follows Morty and Paloma as they try to find the money to help him complete his latest work. For lesser creative minds, this could mean cut corners galore — merely a phony “cure-all” for a lack of money. But The Independent makes smart use of different film stocks when dipping back in time, and generally features great on-the-fly production value; the clips of Morty’s old movies, meanwhile — films like the biker-chick flick Eco Angels, or the anti-war Brothers Divided, about conjoined twins drafted to serve in Vietnam — are both overwhelmingly hilarious and dead-on in their referential aping of cinematic vocabulary and tropes, better than a few of Grindhouse‘s skeevy mock trailers. Even the movie’s throwaway dialogue (“How could the check bounce, I
signed it?!”) is clever and of a piece, feeding the grand-scheme
assessment of Morty and the rest of the movie’s characters. Powered by great performances and filled with plenty of recognizable faces (everyone from Karen Black, Peter Bogdanovich, Nick Cassavetes and Ron Howard to Billy Burke, Bob Odenkirk, Fred Dryer, Andy Dick, the younger Stiller and the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten), it’s hard to figure out why The Independent got hung up so long in home distribution hell, let alone why it labors in anonymity. Regardless, it’s a great little find now, though.
Housed in a regular Amray case, The Independent comes presented in anamorphic widescreen, with optional Spanish subtitles. Stiller sits for an engaging audio commentary track with co-writers Wilkins and Kessler, the latter of whom also directs, and Kessler also submits to a more technical-minded commentary track with editor Chris Franklin. There are also seven deleted scenes with introductory title cards, including a different version of the movie’s opening, featuring Monte Ash and Maria Ford, that had to be re-shot due to what’s deemed first-day tensions from union bickering. The other half dozen scenes feature the late Ted Demme, Laura Kightlinger (who invites a Stiller boob grope, then berates him), and a spot-on send-up of ’70s-era imprisoned-women flicks, with legendary Russ Meyer starlet Kitten Natividad cameoing as a warden. The final supplemental extra is a five-minute segment that takes a look at the recording of Nancy Sinatra’s breathy, 007-ish theme song for Morty. Kudos to all the behind-the-scenes material; it gives The Independent an extra sheen of class, something of which Morty himself would surely be proud. To purchase the movie via Amazon, click here. B+ (Movie) A- (Disc)