Satire, as a cinematic art form, is the rarest of commodities. It requires a distinctive blend of subtlety, irony, foolishness and intelligence. If the ingredient mix is either lacking in one aspect or too heavy in another, the result can be a mess.
Well, three cheers and a tiger for Michael Mongillo and his brilliant satire “Being Michael Madsen.” This wicked, wild, whirling dervish of a movie takes a savage thrust at the culture of celebrity obsession as fueled by a tabloid media that feeds on gossip, innuendo and smears. In a society where Britney Spears’ breakdowns inspire more media frenzy than the war in Iraq, a good smack of satire is needed to remind people (both in the press and in the reading/viewing audience) that priorities have become miserably skewered.
What is astonishing about Mongillo’s film is the concept: presenting Michael Madsen as the heart and soul of the story. Madsen is, of course, well-regarded as an actor who specializes in tough guy roles. But for this film, he daringly allows himself to be reinvented into a Hollywood idol who is lethally out of control – sort of a combination of Paris Hilton and O.J. Simpson. It is something of a gamble, of course, but in this case the gamble results in a comedy jackpot.
Using a faux-documentary format, the plot of “Being Michael Madsen” is deceptively simple. Madsen, in the nutty new persona imagined for him, has become frustrated by the tabloid media and the paparazzi brigades who follow his every move. The news coverage has driven him to a soul-fraying edge, with everything from allegations of murdering a wannabe starlet to having a gay affair with a beaming fat man.
Madsen, being interviewed for this documentary, relates his frustrations. His angst is shared by others who are interviewed for the film: friends and colleagues David Carradine, Daryl Hannah and Harry Dean Stanton and his sister Virginia Madsen.
One person has been a particular anathema to Madsen: the oleaginous tabloid photojournalist Billy Dant (played to emetic perfection by Jason Alan Smith). Madsen seeks his revenge on Dant by turning the tables: he hires a trio of documentary filmmakers to harass Dant with the same level of intrusiveness and innuendo-hunting that Dant wreaked on Madsen.
However, there is one huge fly in this ointment: the trio are plagued their own personal antagonisms and are hardly working in unison. Imagine “The Blair Witch Project” cast in Hollywood and you’ll have an idea what you’re dealing with. The situation devolved into a stunning triangular spiral with Madsen, Dant and the filmmakers at war with each other and themselves.
Revealing more of the film would damage the genuine surprises that bubble up. But one thing deserves to be revealed: Michael Madsen has a hitherto unsuspected genius for comedy. The ultimate movie tough guy, Madsen is so amazing in his deadpan depiction of a Tinseltown train wreck. What is startling is how he can achieve so much by underplaying the persona – he narrates his dilemma with the semi-remorseful pain that is hilariously at odds with his macho, leather-clad physical appearance. He can generate more laughs with a slight downward glance or an adjustment of his broad shoulders than Will Ferrell or Jim Carrey can accomplish with their full-body convulsions.
Madsen is matched by his sister Virginia, who never looked more gorgeous and who has her own subversive Smothers Brothers-style riff about how Michael enjoyed parental favoritism. Kudos are also in order for Jason Alan Smith, Kathy Searle and Davis Mikaels as the bickering filmmakers and Debbie Rochon in an erotically-charged comic cameo as the object of a voyeuristic viewfinder.
“Being Michael Madsen” is sharp, smart and utterly original. In the realm of independent cinema, it doesn’t get better than this.