By Rory L. Aronsky | November 25, 2003

In the wake of Cuba Gooding, Jr. begging for another Oscar in “Radio”, it seemed appropriate to take a look at Jon Jacobs in “Johnny Famous”, who plays a mentally deficient 30-something whom his aunt describes as a “15 year old in his 30s”. Is there any wonder that this hard-to-get-through film won Best Picture at the Hungarian Academy Awards? It makes me wonder if they spike their apricot brandies.
It’s not that “Johnny Famous” is outrageously bad, but just that it’s absolutely frustrating to get through. Jon Jacobs plays Johnny Miller, who lives with his elderly mother, who has seen better times and is not approaching any more bright days. She’s seriously ill and realizes that it’s time for arrangements to be made so that Johnny can be taken care of after she’s gone. Johnny on the other hand, gets on a bus to go to “work”, which is basically spending the day walking around at Venice Beach, wishing to be a part of the crowds that hang around there.
While Johnny’s out one day, his mother holds interviews with various women, in the hopes of finding one that’ll take care of the house and Johnny. With this, we are treated to the usual run of potential applicants, until the final applicant looks to be the right one. Her name is Amy Jo (Dawn Kapatos) and she’s going to school in the area and has taken care of her grandmother, so she does have experience. Johnny’s mother requests that she sell the house after she’s done with school and put Johnny in an institution thereafter. She agrees and the arrangements are made.
This is a very slow-going character piece and the time ticking by on the DVD counter will not help make it go any faster. Jon Jacobs, who will likely never let go of his British accent (and good for him because it’s important not to forget where you hail from), handles the performance much more simply than what could be found in “Radio”. PLUS, you can watch this movie without the fear of sappy, maudlin music pounding out through your speakers, and drowning your brain cells until they are dead. But the unfortunate thing is some of the acting when it comes to later parts of the film, when clichés come into the mix. Ok, so he has the mind-set of a 15-year old and I’ll buy that. But it’s around the 42-minute mark when Johnny tries to tell Amy Jo that he loves her, but surprise, surprise, she’s sleeping. Oh where have I seen that before? And not only that, but he tries to get into her bed as well and she notices and tells him to get out.
One of the other problems in the film besides not having too many original thoughts or any way to make new ideas out of old ones is Dawn Kapatos, who has a Julia Roberts-type face, but has more personality ingrained in her. Her role as Amy Jo is fine when she is sitting down, being interviewed by the mother and a little bit later on, when she’s uncomfortable with Johnny at first. You can read it in her face. But as the film moves on toward the end, she ends up phoning in her performance.
I enjoy character-driven pieces as much as the next movie buff. In fact, many of my favorite films delve into that area. But the main problem with “Johnny Famous” is that despite its 83 minute running time, it’s really hard to get used to the two leads, let alone like them. And big trouble comes along when a rocker (who happens to be Johnny’s idol) comes into the picture and it’s bad enough considering that we haven’t even gotten used to the first two characters. The only one that seems well developed here is the mother, before her death. She understands what she is facing, that Death is near, and she must do what is necessary and she does it. There also doesn’t seem to be too much passion for the material at hand, essential when it comes to making an indie movie. I didn’t expect the characters to jump out and start pouring their hearts out to the audience, complete with tears and all of that. It’s one film that’s part of what I like to call the “Great Gatsby Syndrome”, named so for the 1974 Jack Clayton film that’s beautifully shot, sumptuously designed, but it’s like watching a bunch of bored zombies walking around. This film doesn’t have any sort of sumptuous design and is steeped in reality, which is good, but the first and third parts of the description of the illness fit this movie well.

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