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By Brad Slager | May 20, 2003

Finally—FINALLY—somebody has dared to peel back the shroud that for countless years has hidden the secret world of the pet-supply salesman. These feral and ferocious practitioners of the craft of circulating four-legged fungibles have long operated away from the invasive attention of the general public. Until now, when director Brien Burroughs mustered the courage to take on this cut-throat syndicate—exposing the unseemly underbelly of fish suppliers, as it were.

Yes, I’m employing a high degree of drama, and that is in order to instill some drama where it had not previously existed. Sure there was bravery involved in making this film, if only because the premise is one that few others would willfully pursue on screen. I will settle on calling the idea silly, but that is because calling it bedlamite sounded a little too harsh, and in reality what “Suckerfish” ends up being is a perfect movie for the film festival setting. This unique foundation for a movie is executed with the bold choice of letting the cast dictate the dialogue in true improvisational performance, and it is the kind of thing you go to festivals to see. Viewing in the leisure of your living room is another matter.

For these operators to flourish you need to bypass the reality that is the modern pet superstore in order for them to prey upon smaller, independent retailers. The kibble hustlers are helped along by the portrayal of each store owner as a borderline pet obsessive, most of which are ill-suited for public life and human interaction. Each proprietor has their unique preoccupation—birds, fish, Chihuahuas—and the salesmen use these to their advantage.

The story kicks off with the news that one of the competitors had retired and a replacement has been assigned to the area, news that provokes changes in the Eukanuba universe. Salesman Dick starts to get the idea that if the new guy is undermined properly then his territory would be ripe for the picking, so he tries to broach an alliance with his competitor, Allen, who is understandably reticent given their competitive positions, and the fact that Allen has been doggie-bedding with Rick’s wife Elizabeth. Once he is allayed that Rick’s interest is purely professional the two agree to besmirch the name of the new arrival, Ken, who is clean-cut and from the mid-West, and therefore naïve to the wiles practiced in San Francisco.

With all the subtlety of a bricklayer these two weave tales of dread centering on the new arrival that play on the specific emotions of their customers. One shopkeeper is aghast to hear that Ken once poisoned some pigeons after they befouled the interior of his convertible. The Chihuahua enthusiast is mortified when told how Ken once sold a litter of the dogs to a research laboratory. The tactics work as Ken is soon dismayed to find he is collectively banished from the stores. These scenes contain brief shots of humor, but often they are allowed to run too long and bog down. Occasionally a good line will surface—Ken for instance works for a firm called the “Bow House”, in a nod to Peter Murphy—but more often you get quips like the store owner asking why he would need rectal thermometers and Allen corrects him: “I said reptile thermometers.”

As this plays out we are taken on repeated visitations to the dalliance between Allen and Elizabeth, which is a union of two meandering souls. Al is a mostly dour and brusque sort who becomes increasingly introspective about his dislike of animals, (he even refuses to pet one customer’s bird.) Liz meanwhile is quite serious and never manages to provoke interest or sympathy, probably attributable in part to her being unhappy with her pet-salesman of a husband so she has an affair, with another pet-salesman.

That lack of true interest in their relationship is a problem that affects the entire production. The subject matter is only mildly interesting, (and much of that is due to it being a rarely covered subject) and nothing truly captivating transpires to draw our interest. As an example, too many scenes are staged around the loading bay of a warehouse, and talks of packing slips and bills-of-lading do not generally have any inherent gravity to them. The improvisational work, while technically impressive, was lacking in energy, and this keeps the viewer from delving deeper into the lives of the characters.

Burroughs also intercuts scenes with footage of pets enacting metaphors for the human players. When Allen and Liz get together their date is closed with a shot of fornicating cockatiels, and as the predation of the shopkeepers escalates we get glimpses of lizards and fish feeding on weaker victims. However the director may have the hackles of the animal-rights community raised by one interlude involving a goldfish that gets set-upon by a queen triggerfish. Clearly this was a staged encounter with a freshwater species placed into a salt water environment for the benefit of the camera. This is blatant animal cruelty as any angler will tell you that you will find yourself in Dutch with the marine patrol if you get caught hooking coy in the lip in order to land sport fish. The shrill protest may be on the way.

Then again, maybe that is exactly what Burroughs is hoping may happen. If he sent copies of his film to the offices of PETA it could be any moment now when their fax machines are set on turbo as they demand a boycott, bringing some much needed publicity to this film. If that is the case I’d say it is a brilliant marketing ploy. If only more of that brilliance were carried out on screen.

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