(Breaking Glass Pictures)
dir. Peter Vack
“I’m not fucking a fucking sober bitch pussy, and I’m not having sex like a..no…nobody else would have sex with me because how are they gonna do it? This day and age, all y—, the only way you fuck is if you go for a drink with someone.”
This is how Peter Vack’s 2017 indie addiction comedy Assholes opens, and it’s exactly the kind of irresponsible but fundamentally true diatribe that has become a red diamond in American cinema of late. The films of the 2000s are increasingly homogenized with even the so-called independent films bearing little resemblance to those made in the Seventies, Eighties or even Nineties.
With the exception of Harmony Korine’s tonal prose-poem The Beach Bum, I can think of few, if any, examples of recent movies that allowed their characters to be human, warts and all. Even long-form narratives aren’t permitted to be this honest or ugly. My mind immediately goes to the Hulu series Difficult People which focused on a duo of hopelessly despicable protagonists.
It’s worth mentioning that said show was canceled after its second season. So much for the artistic freedom of streaming services. I’ve gotta wonder if the Billy Eichner series was given the ax, at least in part, because of its equal opportunity insults. Indeed, nothing seemed to be off-limits in Difficult People, whether it was jokes about 9/11 being an inside job, the proliferation of pop-up restaurants or the obnoxious and out-of-control hipsterdom of 21st Century Manhattan (see: John Mulaney as Old Timey Cecil whose breakout line is, “My family invented the jelly bean. Fuck you!”).
Difficult People would have been a fitting and admittedly more mature title for Peter Vack’s directorial debut. In another universe I could even see the two being paired up for a retrospective. But not in 2020, not even if you’re Todd Solondz or John Waters. The former is relegated to the back pages of Amazon while the latter has to write books in lieu of directing motion pictures.
All “get off my lawn” nostalgic yearning aside, I’ve gotta commend Vack for the bold choices that he makes from frame one. A lot of ink has been spilled about Assholes being a “gross-out” movie, but it’s not the crassness of the dialogue or the hideous sight gags that are really so jarring. Instead it’s Vack’s keen attention to detail that other millennial filmmakers would be unlikely to think of.
In the very first sequence of the flick, as Adah Shapiro, pic’s girl in begrudging recovery, complains about how much she hates sober people we are treated to subtitles that cannot be removed by remote. These subtitles aren’t in another language other than our own. In fact, they are all too familiar to some of us.
“When I was not a sober person and I looked at ber people, I wod be like, whoa, like, you are li, lame. Like, I never gonna be like you. And now that I have crossed over to the sober fe, I stil feel that way, I do! I just still feel that way, and I, I jt, you know, nothing’s changed, and just, and it makes me feel incredibly lonely. Like, incredibly alone in this world because now I forced to hang out with people who I relateero…”
This is just a taste of Adah’s lament and the accompanying subtitles read like nothing so much as a regrettable text message that you send to a former lover at four in the morning before crashing on a park bench and waking up in your own urine.
It is this sense of authenticity that gives Assholes its real power. And it is this power that makes this more than what can fairly be referred to as a “gross-out comedy.” For every feculent fluid that’s highlighted on-screen there are a handful of exchanges that underscore the seriousness of the subject matter.
This acute authenticity extends far beyond the frankness of Adah’s sexual frustration to the way in which she projects her sickness onto her brother, something that virtually every addict has been guilty of at some point in their downward spiral.
I feel like I need to point out that Adah is played by Vack’s real life sister and that Adam Shapiro, her on-screen brother, is played by Vack himself. The actor-director’s birth name was Peter S. Brown. He and his sister’s parents are Ron and Jane Brown, a screenwriter and producer, respectively.
If one were to venture a guess as to the origins of Assholes‘ plot they would probably assume that it’s a work of autobiography. Fortunately for Vack and his sibling, this was never the case. The pair were raised on the Upper West Side by an entrepreneurial father and a mother who earned a living as a psychoanalyst.
While Vack has copped to the fact that they drew upon “past animosities” toward each other, this was not the crux of his idea for the story. In fact, the characters were originally written as ex-lovers and Vack only decided to alter the script after his sister performed the part of the ex-gf during a table read.
People can talk all they want about how “disgusting” this film is, but I dare anyone to name another recent American film that has so lovingly paid homage to the composition of International arthouse pictures. From the off-kilter framing and overbearing lighting to the stilted dialogue and random outbursts, there is little here that could be compared to the likes of the Farrelly Brothers or a Judd Apatow flick.
Maybe Peter Vack isn’t the real asshole, maybe it’s people like me who get off on seeing something that so brazenly thumbs its nose at narrative convention and domestic cinematic structure. I suspect this was at least a consideration of Vack’s if not his full intent.
While I was watching Assholes I was reminded of a quote by Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki in which he complained about the state of modern cinema, saying, “In the old days you had one murder and that was enough for a story. Now you have to kill 300,000 people just to get the audience’s attention.”
If any quote explains the necessity of Assholes‘ verbal and visual excesses it’s this jeremiad. In a world that’s become increasingly desensitized to sex and violence on camera, the only logical next step is for a male and female protagonist to suck each others’ assholes and cold sores. Not because it’s particularly beautiful or artistic, simply because there’s nowhere left to go. How else will you get anyone’s attention?
While it can easily be argued that subtlety would be a better and craftier weapon against mainstream cinema’s excesses, it’s impossible not to acknowledge a certain brilliance in Vack’s politically incorrect presentation of drug-induced insanity.
One extended sequence in the first half hour feels so painfully real that it’s difficult to imagine it being filmed without the cast and crew landing in NYC’s infamous Tombs. And that’s before the birth of the shit-smeared demon woman from the mortal asshole.
It’s fitting that Vack and his sister grew up with a mother who specialized in psychoanalysis because the entire film could be read as one protracted 74-minute therapy session. This is not lost on Assholes‘ creator who makes it a point to include an analyst as a central character, one that seems perpetually put upon by his neurotic patients.
That the analyst is himself so desperate for a connection that he considers himself friends with these assholes reinforces the notion that Assholes isn’t merely about assholes and their obsession with assholes but, more importantly, about how we all have our heads wedged firmly up our assholes.
In short, Assholes is a family film that everyone should be able to connect with. One character sums the madness up quite succinctly: “It’s gender blind, it seems to be directed at all of us.” At the end of the day, these assholes are us.—Bob Freville