It’s refreshing these days to see a film that initially leads you to believe it’s something it’s not, and does it in such an unforced manner. “The Anarchist Cookbook” starts off as a somewhat light, if smartly written, comedy about the residents of a Dallas, TX anarchist commune and ends up rather dramatically examining deeper issues of trust, friendship, and self-realization.
The hero, if you will, of “Cookbook” is Puck (“Roswell’s” Devon Gummersall, not that homunculus from the MTV show), a college dropout and refugee from Plano, TX. The movie’s many jibes at the expense of Plano may not resonate with audience members from outside the Lone Star State. In that case, please substitute the name of the nearest soulless, suburban, master planned community and you’ll get the idea. Puck enjoys hanging out with his friends – Karla (the sensual hedonist), Double D (the loveable doofus), Sweeney (the ladies’ man), and Johnny Red (the OH – Original Hippie) – and performing mildly annoying misdemeanors. Everything appears to be on an even keel until the arrival of the ominous Johnny Black, a nihilist with some new ideas about the meaning of “direct action.”
“The Anarchist Cookbook” is the first full-length feature from writer/director Jordan Susman, but it plays like the work of someone much more polished. Unlike many indie features, “Cookbook” almost looks professional enough to be a studio release (I’m not sure if that’ll be taken as a compliment or not, but I meant it as one). The first act of the film led me to worry that Susman was overestimating the effect a bunch of quote-unquote “anarchists” could have on society, but as the movie ended I found myself appreciating his realistic approach to the protagonist’s dilemma.
The performances in “Cookbook” are consistently superior, with special note going to John Savage (“The Godfather, Part III,” “The Deer Hunter”) and Dylan Bruno (“The One,” “Where the Heart Is”) as Johnnys Red and Black, respectively. Gummersall’s Puck is particularly believable as a young man forced to confront the consequences of pushing the boundaries of acceptable protest and, in the end, choosing the path that’s best for him. And when you get down to it, that’s really what “The Anarchist Cookbook” is all about. Katharine Towne (“Mulholland Dr.”), playing Puck’s Young Republican love interest, is also noteworthy for her living embodiment of the old adage that apparent conservatives are often the biggest freaks of all.
The book that inspired the film’s title, The Anarchist Cookbook, is itself a bit misrepresented in the film, however. Johnny Black offers it as a sort of cult blueprint for mayhem, but even when I was growing up every dork in junior high had a copy (I got mine at the local Hastings). It’s still widely available, and even today the debate goes on whether or not the book was purposely stocked with errors – either by the law enforcement community or the author himself, who has since tried to get its publication discontinued. One has to assume its inclusion in the movie is meant to serve primarily as a McGuffin.
That aside, “The Anarchist Cookbook” is worthy of attention. Susman has put together a well-crafted, witty commentary on corporate culture and the deals all of us make with ourselves to come to terms with modern existence. See it if you get a chance.