Sunday, February 22, 2009

Built a Little Empire

My Name Is Bruce
DVD via Redbox

Nearly every role Bruce Campbell has ever had gets name-checked at some point or another during My Name Is Bruce, large or small, which is impressive since the movie is barely an hour long. The film that gets the most play, though, isn't any of the Evil Dead or Spider-Man movies. With a T-shirt, several posters, and the only line of dialogue regarding one of Campbell's other pictures that isn't negative, Bubba Ho-Tep is the leader in the clubhouse.

That makes for an interesting contrast. My Name is a film that from start to finish hangs its hat entirely on the onscreen persona that Campbell created in the Evil Dead films and maintained through "Xena," "Brisco County," The Man with the Screaming Brain, "Burn Notice," basically everything he's been in that was longer than a cameo. Even in his minor bits in Sam Raimi's big-budget movies, the point of his presence is never the role but the actor. Bubba Ho-Tep, an incredibly weird film that's easier to appreciate afterwards than enjoy while you're watching it, is the glaring exception. For that movie, Campbell wore tons of prosthetics and affected a voice not his own to play an elderly Elvis Presley. He was acting in that movie, not just doing his schtick. He should do that more often.

Bubba was a unique viewing experience because of how committed it was to its story. The plot description makes it sound like a wacky horror comedy, but it was anything but. It was about a geriatric Elvis and an old black guy who thinks he's JFK fighting a thousand-year old mummy, but... it was actually about that. The point of the film wasn't to comment about Elvis impersonators, or the mummy genre, or the lately doughy Campbell's loss of potency as an action hero, or anything else external to the story. It was a character study about what Elvis might actually be like if he was alive, had an inflamed prostate, and had to fight a mummy. An absolutely bizarre movie. But at the same time, it had something kind of pure about it, and the dedication of its director, writer, and actors to take each scene completely at face value qualifies it without reservation as art.

My Name Is Bruce, by roaring contrast, relies entirely on external qualities to justify its existence. Campbell's loutish, rubbery antihero figure (Ash in the Evil Dead movies) is applied to himself for the first time. Rather than playing the same character that he plays all the time with different names and costumes, Campbell plays himself as the character he plays all the time. This is less interesting than it sounds. The Evil Dead movies developed from shock horror (the first one) to splatter comedy (the sequel) to comedy/fantasy/adventure (Army of Darkness) basically by accident, as what was received to be good by the filmmakers from the last movie in the sequence got reinforced in the next one.

In the original, Campbell had to carry the picture because by not too long into it the rest of the cast turned into makeup- and blood-covered killing machines. Since he was a nonprofessional being directed by nonprofessionals, he played the role all wrong for a horror movie survivor -- dense, obnoxious, loud, with excessive hand gestures and bug-eyed pronouncements. The horror genre was already kind of desperate for new ideas in 1981, and the over-the-top gorefest that Sam Raimi and his buddies had intended to make ended up more famous for its goofy hero. They even changed the title upon release to reflect the unintentional shift in focus. It was The Book of the Dead while they were shooting, but became the more smirking The Evil Dead in theaters.

And the rest is history, if you're the sort of historian who attends "Star Trek" conventions on the regular. Over the last 25 years Campbell has become a professional at performing a persona that he stumbled upon essentially by accident. He's gracious enough about it on the whole, but there's always a little bit of melancholy buried in the numerous self-deprecating comments in his DVD commentaries and his autobiography (If Chins Could Kill, with the again self-undercutting subtitle Confessions of a B Movie Actor). The real Bruce Campbell isn't so much of a jerk that he would ever repudiate his past work, insult his many devoted fans, or even stop making movies where he rolls out the Ash persona yet again. (As My Name Is Bruce represents in exaggerated fashion, he's hardly in the position to go turning down work.) But there is a bit of a sadness to him. That's what makes you wish he took on real challenges like Bubba Ho-Tep on a more regular basis. There's a lot of road not taken there, for a guy who in his signature role wore a chainsaw arm. He could have been The Phantom!

My Name Is Bruce was written by Campbell fan Mark Verheiden and directed by the man himself; in it you'll see veterans of past Bruce triumphs (don't worry if you don't recognize them because they'll point it out to you themselves) and Ted Raimi in no less than three different roles, two of which are deeply culturally offensive. Verheiden knows the catalog backwards and forwards, even the obscure stuff like Maniac Cop and Lunatics: A Love Story. He tends to treat punchlines like Zapp Brannigan does pickup lines. He throws as many out as quickly as he possibly can, and doesn't leave any space in there for the audience to potentially react positively or otherwise. This sort of suits Campbell as an actor, but not really as a director. A lot of My Name just looks crappy. It's lit like a frathouse basement, the proportions often seem wrong in some scenes as if they're using the wrong lens for the depth of field, and it's framed and edited with less feel than the movies Sam Raimi was directing Campbell in when they were 14.

The monster that the fictionalized Campbell is called upon to fight is particularly laughable -- it looks a lot like the witch my mom keeps in the basement for Halloween. That witch consists of a cloak, a hat, a mask, and some lights to go behind the eyes so they have a spooky glow. The monster in My Name Is Bruce was assembled it appears on the same budget, except it also has a long white beard (because it's a Chinese monster). Generally when they were making "X-Files" episodes and due to the crunch of the production schedule didn't have time to realize their monster of the week was a hairy rubber suit with some goo-goo eyeballs glued on until it was too late, they had some tricks to fall back on. Quick cuts, shadows, rapid pans, fisheye lenses, what have you. All of these techniques are lost on director Campbell, who keeps showing the monster full-on. It just looks hilariously bad, but it's not the kind of hilariousness that the film is deliberately attempting.

Besides Raimi, Campbell's most obvious filmmaking influence is Mel Brooks. He keeps taking scenes way beyond their logical conclusions, as in one early scene where "Bruce" smashes up his trailer drinking the last drops of every liquor bottle in the place, then pratfalls to the floor and starts pouring whiskey in his mouth from a dog bowl. He shows more instinct for subtle humor, such as it can be said to exist in a film like this one. The quick scene detailing a day's work on the set of Cave Alien 2 is particularly, painfully, accurate. If you look carefully you can see a hand popping into the frame to throw more goo on our hero. There's also a very funny 1800's newsprint gag (a giant headline regarding a spelling bee, with a tiny item in the corner "100 Chinese die in mine accident") that makes its point much better and much faster than Ted Raimi's long and painful following performance as a squinting, 'r'- and 'l'-confusing Asian stereotype.

Or take the ballad -- My Name Is Bruce begins with the folksinging McCain brothers, who also have supporting roles in the film, performing a little ditty explaining the back story of the bean curd-loving, decapitation-happy Guan-Di. It's a funny scene, particularly the way they finish the song, pause, and then make eye contact with each other. So no problems there, but then they repeat the same scene, and the same song, four more times throughout the course of the already-short picture. It stops being funny, quickly.

The cast is pretty terrible, largely on purpose. There are a few exceptions. As the Campbell fan who unleashes the monster and then goes to fetch his hero to fight it, Taylor Sharpe talks almost entirely in lines from other Bruce films. He has some good stuff early on but once Campbell arrives in Gold Lick, Oregon to battle Guan-Di the movie kind of forgets about him. As the love interest, Grace Thorsen is quite good -- the one pro in a field full of Campbell and Raimi's buddies from Michigan. She can't do anything with the alarmingly bad romantic writing and an absolutely brutal physical "comedy" dance sequence, but good for the filmmakers for finding someone believable for the only real human character in the script.

My Name Is Bruce is an abominably bad movie, but it doesn't lack for laughs. More unintentional than planned, perhaps, but if you've at least internalized the Evil Dead trilogy you're going to find stuff to giggle at in here. Sadly, it was kind of more fun to watch than Bubba Ho-Tep, even though in every regard Bubba was a better made, acted, and directed picture. The trouble with having a role you're born to play is until you die you're expected to keep playing it. Hey, it worked for Shatner.

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