American Animal Image

American Animal

By Jessica Baxter | March 24, 2011

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.

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  1. Don Hutton says:

    I agree totally with Ryan (above). I saw this film in NY, then watched ‘back ‘the trailer on youtube, a day after. One has to ask oneself – if a debate about smoking ‘illegal drugs’ – which is a ‘highpoint’ from the trailer’s perspective (pardon the accidental pun)- is considered fresh and new, then God help the film maker. It is an old argument! That’s the best the writer could come up with!It’s a “just because you (an individual) call something ‘drugs’, doesn’t mean to say they are.” Aside from that, Jimmy was thoroughly annoying and pretentious, and the actor who played him, the very same. It saddens me that indie has come to this. If you want better American indie, go and see something like Winter’s Bone. I don’t know anything about the writer/actor, as Ryan says above, but if it’s true, then it’s just sad. It’s denying those ‘without contacts’, an opportunity in the film and media world, and is a case of self-aggrandisement and nepotism.

  2. Ryan Blank says:

    Couldn’t agree more with the last comment.
    “unwatchable” is overused quite a bit, but that’s what this was.
    I usually think of something as self-indulgent when the performance comes from somebody who has done something in their career, so this “piece” was even more off-putting than that.

    This is the type of drivel that comes from people who generally come from money (his father is a by the numbers TV director) and are financially allowed and encouraged to pursue their dreams, regardless of talent level, with no financial or pressing need to succeed. There’s just nobody to tell them that just because their Dad got in the business, that doesn’t mean they need to follow.

    Fantastic for them, i suppose, insulating one’s self in a small community of false encouragement and denial. Not so great for anyone else who has a finite amount of time left to live.
    Oh well – it was only 35 minutes or so of my life. It didn’t go much longer than that, did it?

  3. Will Leone says:

    I saw the film in Little Rock a few weeks back, and was looking forward to viewing something that wasn’t multi million dollar backed – so, more indie or arthouse. Having read your review, I respectfully have to disagree. To compare the script or dialog to Becket and Stoppard is tantamount to the absurd. I mean, it just isn’t close. I appreciate the effort by those involved in trying to make something new and original, but the dialog was at best average. The film did smell like a vanity project sadly – D’Elia clearly wants to be Al Pacino, even though he’d claim that that is what his character (Jimmy) wants rather than himself. Mircea Monroe and Brendan Fletcher were perfectly fine in their performances, but sadly the weak aspect is D’Elia with terrible over-acting. Overall, I do admire anyone who attempts something different, but sadly this is ‘aspiring’ to be intelligent, rather than actually being intelligent.

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