Around the middle of Hits, a Brooklyn collective of indeterminate purpose cuts together a grandiose YouTube video comparing Dave Stuben (Matt Walsh), a permanently outraged small-town crank, to the Jimmy Stewart of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. But Stuben’s council-meeting rants, which often begin with talk of potholes before devolving into poorly articulated discussions of his rights, owe more to the citizens of towns like Springfield or Pawnee, fictional places rich in good old-fashioned righteous ignorance.
Hits takes place in Liberty, a real town in upstate New York’s Sullivan County, where comedian turned writer-director David Cross has a house (though the movie places its version of Liberty in Montgomery County, which is farther north). Cross’ version of Liberty is a dead-end burg that Stuben’s daughter Katelyn (Meredith Hagner) fantasizes about leaving, preferably by getting an audition for The Voice. It’s her misfortune that she lives in a place where townsfolk are more likely to get famous from a viral video of groin-related mishaps.
If this sounds like Cross vacationing in the country and sizing up his neighbors as hopeless rubes, Hits manages to render moments of surprising poignancy. Cross knows how to get big laughs from throwaway moments, and at times he applies that skill outside of broad comedy, packing an impressive amount of characterization into what kind of music blasts from different characters’ cars as they cruise into parking lots. For the movie’s younger characters, cars become literal vehicles of self-expression: Katelyn parks in seclusion to conduct imaginary interviews on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, while a local doofus and aspiring rapper (Jake Cherry) nurses his crush on Katelyn primarily by pulling up next to her and spouting nonsense. There’s a lot of dopiness and sleaze in Liberty, but some sweetness emerges, particularly in the uneasy but loving relationship between Stuben and his ambitious but questionably talented daughter.
If the movie had stuck with the citizens of Liberty, it might have resembled (however slightly) the caustic but heartfelt Ghost World, in which Cross had a small role. But Hits sets aside several of its more intriguing characters in favor of a plot driven by the collective that conflates Stuben’s ranting with their own (and similarly ineffectual) lefty activism. Led by Donovan (James Adomian, speaking in an exaggerated whine that sounds more appropriate for voicing a supporting character on Beavis And Butt-Head), they make their video, claim Stuben as their would-be cause célèbre, and head up to Liberty to join the fray.
The satire of self-satisfied, opportunistic Brooklynites is cutting, but it lacks the humanity afforded the upstate characters, and quickly repeats itself, seemingly by design. For the Brooklyn characters’ long, sketch-like scenes of talking a lot but saying little, Cross follows the kind of comic blueprints that are probably funnier and more interesting on paper than put into action. In all of the repetitive satirical clamor, Dave Stuben himself disappears from much of the film’s second half until he’s needed for a climactic revelation—another move that feels more tactical than organic. Cross closes out his first film with an attempt at a grand summation about fame and delusion; it’s an ambitious gesture from a smart guy who may not have noticed how much more he was saying before he reached his big, obvious statement.
Hits is available tomorrow on BitTorrent as a pay-what-you-want download. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services, and will open in select theaters.