A couple years ago, I was told by a guy in Miramax’s acquisition department, “Don’t make a movie about making a movie.” Ironically, he said this as he sat in front of a poster for the yet-to-be-released “Full Frontal,” which had a movie-within-a-movie storyline. “Chump Change,” a Miramax acquisition after winning top honors at the 2001 HBO Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, is also about making a movie. I wonder if the Miramax guy should have said, “Don’t make a movie about making a movie… unless you at least have a bunch of semi-recognizable names in it.”
Or, maybe this flunky from Miramax (who no longer works there, incidentally) didn’t really know what they were looking for. And with that in mind, the cynical nature of “Chump Change” is dead on.
In “Chump Change,” a cheesehead from Milwaukee (Stephen Burrows) is returning home after a failed attempt at a career in Hollywood. After attaining 15-minute celebrity status as the guy from a jock-itch ad, Milwaukee Steve is struggling to advance his career. After an embarrassing stint on “Wheel of Fortune,” he makes a short film about his experiences and is promptly sued by Merv Griffen, who owns the show.
Because of this “controversial” film that cannot be shown for legal reasons, Milwaukee Steve becomes the writer to talk to in Hollywood. However, after being commissioned to write a studio feature, his rose-colored world comes crashing down with inane rewrites and ludicrous studio comments. Eventually, Milwaukee Steve heads back home to find his old room rented out to Traci Lords (as the character of Sam), who turns out to be just what he’s been looking for all along. (Isn’t this every guy’s dream?)
The biggest sin that “Chump Change” has is the ego of its director, Stephen Burrows. The film is a self-admitted semi-autobiographical piece about Burrows’ own frustrations with the Hollywood scene. I’ve always said that life may have a great sense of drama and comedy, but it doesn’t always have a great sense of timing. In listening to Burrows commentary, I learned that many of the jokes that fell flat were his attempt to tell things as they really happened.
For example, in the middle of the film, Tim Matheson as studio exec Simon Sez, launches into a monologue of what’s funny and what’s not. It’s entirely too long and really not all that funny. Burrows admits that he was given virtually the same speech by someone in the industry. It was probably hilarious when he heard it, but it just didn’t translate that well to film.
Many of Milwaukee Steve’s experiences are real – including the lawsuit from Merv Griffin. (In fact, in order to include his silenced film “Soldier of Fortune,” Burrows had to show courtroom-style artist renderings rather than show the film itself.) With this in mind, “Chump Change” is actually rather depressing. After all, Burrows did honest-to-God work in Hollywood as an actor and a writer. He has more credits than most indie film actors around the country (which isn’t all the much, by the way). And he still didn’t “make it.”
Burrows peppers the film with many different cameos, like Jerry Stiller, Fred Willard and even Roger Clinton. He also cast several old buddies from his improv days in The Groundlings. The absolute funniest part of the film, however, is Clancy Brown’s take on a pretentious acting teacher, simply called “The Man.” However, Burrows humbly admits that most of the performance was Brown’s idea.
Burrows placated his own ego by casting himself in the lead, even though he just ain’t leading man material. In once scene, a casting director (played by Anne Meara) tells him that he looks like “a sickly Chris Penn.” In the director’s commentary, Burrows says rather incredulously that he was actually told this by a casting director once. I hate to break it to you, buddy, but you really do look like a sickly Chris Penn. And who wants to watch that for 90 minutes?
There are some decent extras on the DVD that help redeem the film. Burrows gives an informative commentary and also includes a commentary track where he talks about his director’s commentary. Sure, it’s a quick one-stop joke, but it was a creative diversion. There’s also a one-on-one interview “A Conversation with Traci Lords,” conducted by Burrows himself. But somehow, Burrows manages to mostly discuss himself rather than Lords.
The deleted scenes and outtakes all have optional director’s commentary, which is always nice to hear why the scenes weren’t included (although it is often self-explanatory). Unfortunately, many of the deletions were from old Groundlings gags from Burrows’ repertoire that are already overdone in the movie itself.
The height of Burrows bitterness with the industry emerges in his “Focus Group Lo-Lights” section where he reads real comments he received from focus group screenings. It wouldn’t be so bad if he didn’t routinely make fun of people who misspelled words in their comments. The sickly Chris Penn lashes out.
Ultimately, “Chump Change” could have been a great satire on the industry if Burrows would have swallowed his ego and used his own experiences as inspiration rather than living out his own fantasy of casting himself against Traci Lords as a love interest and telling jokes that would only be funny if you had been there.