If you’ve read any plays by Tom Stoppard or Samuel Becket, than American Animal will be familiar territory. Apart from quick-paced banter between characters, nothing much happens. But when the thing is over, you’re left with much to muse. This sort of thing can be challenging. Especially since writer/director/star Matt D’Elia has created a personality who is obtrusive to say the least. Furthermore, when someone has that much creative control over a film, it’s usually a big, flashing warning sign that says “Vanity Project.” As it happens, it’s not vanity if they’re actually talented.
“American Animal” is practically a paradox. D’Elia plays Jimmy, an eccentric unemployed man with an unexplained terminal illness who spends his days lounging around his shared flat in unconventional underpants espousing philosophical monologues and doing impressions. A character like this should be aggravating, not compelling. It helps that Jimmy makes some pretty good points in his monologues and his impressions aren’t too shabby. Jimmy’s flatmate is James (Brendan Fletcher), an uptight bookish man (in contrast) who also enjoys a life of leisure. Remember those exhilarating nights in college when you blew off your homework and instead used what you learned in class to have inebriated, heated debates with your friends about the state of humanity?
That’s every day for these trust-fund-squandering lay-a-bouts. Recently, however, James has begun to feel guilty about his extravagant lifestyle and decides that he needs to move forward with that whole “adulthood” thing by taking a job. Conversely, Jimmy has just decided that he hasn’t been extravagant enough. He proceeds to guilt-trip James and their two lady friends (a cheery blonde and a jaded brunette, both named Angela) into indulging him in his hedonistic antics. Jimmy is upset that James has decided to break up the party and does everything in his power to convince James to reconsider. James wants to affect the world around him and give his life a purpose. Jimmy has concluded that because he doesn’t have any responsibilities, he has mastered the system.
The eloquent, thought-provoking dialog flows at a theatrical pace, but it doesn’t feel unnatural. These are college-educated people who aren’t shy about name-dropping Charles Darwin. A typical exchange has everyone saying “what?” with near-maddening frequency, forcing each other to repeat themselves. It’s embellished, but it’s also an understandable reaction to the tension built up in close quarters. Though Jimmy makes grand, self-assured statements and spouts his radical, provocative ideas, he has several substantiated arguments in his repertoire. He makes childish demands and is completely inconsiderate to his friends. He jumps from character to character, often with a costume change. He makes up his own words and insists that it can be Christmas if he wants it to be.
Jimmy blames his madness on whatever ailment requires him to take a meal’s worth of prescription drugs every morning. But what has really driven him mad is his privileged life. When he’s actually faced with a problem, he handles it by going balls out (sometimes literally). He’s the closest thing we have to a successful modernization of Hamlet. James is Jimmy’s Rosencrantz/Guildenstern. Though he has good intentions and thinks he’s doing the right thing, James is also, in some ways, writing Jimmy’s death warrant. James isn’t as exuberant as Jimmy, but actor Fletcher aids in cultivating a compelling character that may not be as reasonable as he thinks he is. The big adult job that James is starting in the morning is a paid internship at Harper Collins. His “contribution to society” is a job that he probably got through nepotism.
Theatrics aside, American Animal is a colorful, audiovisual experience. D’Elia utilizes jump cut montages and musical cues reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film to acquaint the audience with life in the Urban Outfitters catalog in which these two men have holed up for so long. D’Elia lets the irreverent décor of the house serve as shorthand for who these men are. Thankfully, no one in the film ever says the titular line. It was only after the credits rolled that I realized the title was a punch line.