Well, that'll teach me to go jackassin'. After all that bragging I did about the star-stuffed good time I was going to have at this year's South By Southwest Film Festival, I arrived in Austin to find it dreary, rainy and cold — or, at least as cold as it ever gets around here, which for an expatriate Chicagoan like myself is pretty mild, but still not a lot of fun to trudge around in. Also, like estimable Austin AV Club BMOC Sean O'Neal, I have a cold, which was bound to make me plenty of fun to sit next to in the theater. By the time I got checked in, I was already surrounded by hipster haircuts and eager to get into a nice dark room where I wouldn't have to look at them.
The first movie I saw (unbeknownst to me, in the company of Sean — if you didn't spot me, either, I was the one coughing incessantly) was New World Order, a documentary on latter-day conspiracy theorists directed by Darkon's Andrew Neel & Luke Meyer. Featuring a smorgasbord of anti-government ranters, 9/11 "truthers", 2nd-Amendment absolutists and other assorted cranks, the movie had a strong local hook, featuring as it did Austin's own Alex Jones, a hyper-tense, raving nutjob who, when he's not promoting his marginally lucid ideas on the radio, shouts them at random passers-by through a bullhorn. Jones pretty much steals the show through the sheer force of his overbearing personality, but there's a wide enough assortment of zanies in New World Order to keep it from becoming just a filmed version of his radio show.
Filmed in the 'point your camera at a crazy person' style that's far too beloved by documentary filmmakers these days, there's nothing particularly artful about New World Order, although its footage and interviews are painstakingly assembled. How successful movies of this sort are depends on how much you can get the subjects to open up, but these are people who crave attention in the worst way. They're already wide open; the secret is to get them to shut up. I've always been frustrated with this sort of conspiracy-monger; they spend their not inconsiderable mental energies chasing imaginary evils when there are real crimes happening everywhere. Then again, they probably think the same thing about me.
In the end, how much you like a movie like New World Order depends on how much you are capable of marveling at the mental capacity of true believers to construct and sustain these elaborate, fantastical ideas. Neel and Meyer do succeed in establishing that when you look at them from the right angle, there's really not much to distinguish them from the conspirators they loathe.
Next, I headed over to the Paramount for the debut of ExTerminators. It drew a pretty big crowd, thanks largely to being filmed in Austin and featuring a load of local talent in the cast and crew, and in a perfect example of the sort of bureaucratic rigamarole that big film festivals are increasingly heir to, there were no less than four lines set up to wrangle the crowd. There was the line to buy tickets, the line for when you'd already bought tickets, the line for badge-holders, and the line for badge-holders who also had advance tickets. (That's in addition to the usual line of dipshits who just form up next to another line and hope nobody knows the difference between a rank and a file.) There was also supposed to be a line for press RSVPs, but no one seemed to know where it was, which is too bad for me, because that's the line I was supposed to be in.
"Boy," I remember thinking to myself after about a half hour of my hipster haircut getting rained on while standing in the wrong line. "This seems like a lot of trouble to go to for the sake of what looks like a pretty crappy Heather Graham movie." Of course, this is terribly unfair. I am a professional, and it is my professional duty not to pronounce a Heather Graham movie to be shitty until after I've seen it. Well, now I've seen it. ExTerminators, directed by Scrubs veteran and first-time feature filmmaker John Inwood, is a extremely mild comedy about three women who, after offing the abusive husband (played by Texas music favorite Charlie Robison) of a friend by forcing his car off the world's most conveniently located cliff, decide to make a career out of ridding the world of bad boyfriends and cheating spouses.
ExTerminators, despite its nasty premise, is dishwater-gray comedy when it should be pitch-black. It never takes its premise very seriously, which means there's precious few laughs to be had; it features endless (and pandering) gal-pal bonding scenes, but skimps on the details of the murder spree that could have made it a vicious dark comedy. The script is meandering and often unbelievable; the complication (one of the conspirators falls in love with a cop) is eye-rollingly dopey, and there are holes in the plot big enough to drive a Cadillac car through. One scene, where two of the women shop for lethal implements in a hardware store while talking the third through her big date over a cell phone, only serves as the solitary reminder of how much better the movie could have been.
It's none too likely that ExTerminators could have been saved by its cast, but this one barely seems to try. Heather Graham, in the lead role, seems determined to make the world forget how good she was when she started her career, and spends half the movie insanely distracting the audience by wearing the gigantic oversized glasses Harry Caray was buried in. Jennifer Coolidge, so good at playing broad comic characters, underplays here to dreary effect, and Joey Lauren Adams continues to be Joey Lauren Adams. The bright spot is local actress Amber Heard (Pineapple Express), who has one of the movie's best scenes, and shines as a genially psychotic young floozy. But she's not enough to save the film, which is a chick flick dressed up like a black comedy and isn't very good at either.
Tomorrow's a full slate of movies, so watch this space. If the update's late in coming, it's because I honored my fraternity by getting nice and drunk, which I shamefully failed to do tonight, even after having to sit through ExTerminators.