What: Film Review
Directed and Written by: Don Swaynos
Produced by: Don Swaynos, Kelly Williams, Tate English
Starring: Kerri Lendo, John Merriman, Shannon McCormick, Byron Brown, Chris Doubek, Sonny Carl Davis
Running Time (in min.): 70 minutes
Rating: Not Rated
Official Selection of the 2012 Austin Film Festival
You know you are watching the work of a peculiar mind when a juggalette mother and an unwitting prostitute have a boring conversation. How is it possible to turn that situation into a quotidian experience, I wondered? Hindsight informs me that it takes a certain kind of consistency – the kind that John Waters might best typify – to make a film’s world seem simultaneously surreal and mundane. Certainly it was outside Salvador Dali’s wheelhouse.
But it’s a feat that the Austin-based editor and producer Don Swaynos pulls off in his feature directorial debut, Pictures of Superheroes (2012). The film revolves – at a sloth-like mosey – around Marie, a sadsack maid played by the comic Kerri Lendo who loses her job and her boyfriend (Byron Brown) on the same day. In Swaynos’s world, drawn from his own script, we get a boss (Chris Doubek, stealer of scenes) who reveals to Marie that she’s let go because a) His cleaning service has been discovered as the front for a “prostitution store…tax-free”; and b) she was not “one of our better employees,” since apparently she spent most of her time actually cleaning houses. Most of this inspires giggles, but it’s neither shocking nor all that strange until Marie has a chance encounter with a buggy-eyed bald man played by Shannon McCormick.
A “businessman” with no actual business to speak of, McCormick’s Eric wears suits everywhere, talks on his cellphone more than to real people, and gets so busy that when he does finally eat, he assembles a plate of vacuum lint. As oblivious and odd as he is, Eric recognizes that his house needs cleaning – so, fresh from her firing, he hires Marie. And it’s not long before she realizes that Eric’s house isn’t dirty because he neglects it, but because a slovenly, intentional vandal named Joe (John Merriman, recently great in Yen Tan’s Pit Stop) is living secretly in an unused room. Joe pours coffee intentionally onto the carpet; he draws comics in his spare time; and to top things off, he’s both bearded, overweight, and possibly brain-damaged. Naturally, he becomes attracted to the first woman we suppose he’s seen in half a decade.
Explaining the sort of triangle that forms between Eric, Joe, and Marie is useless because it is not much like other triangles, or any other shapes for that matter: no actual romance, no deep friendships, no antagonism, really. What Swaynos draws from Marie’s entanglements with these weirdos is amusement – hers and ours. Lendo, an Austin-based stand-up and filmmaker, is smart to make herself the straight woman here. Behind her frumpy uniform, which she graciously bears for almost half the film, are a smirk and eyes just waiting to roll in derision. In her first feature lead, Lendo is our anchor to any semblance of the real, and she wisely avoids the sort of theatrics that McCormick and Merriman make off with. It’s impressive work, if only because it reinforces what we should all know by now: good comics make strong actors.
That being said, it’s still the Merriman-McCormick show, and they turn Swaynos’s script into a snicker-fest. Merriman suffers from an uncanny physical resemblance to a certain overweight, bearded Greek-American comic, but his performance here has a uniquely calm energy (in a lesser film, that would emerge from a pot-smoking habit or some sort of undiagnosed mental disorder.) His face, if it didn’t look so sympathetic on camera, might otherwise suit a more bullish or obsequious character, which makes his appeal all the more bewildering. By contrast, the gangly McCormick is perhaps easier on the eyes and therefore makes more of his truly demented behavior; too much, in fact. One scene, in which he pretends Marie is his wife to impress a man resembling an old-world Texan oil baron (Sonny Carl Davis, of Richard Linklater’s Bernie), almost ends with Lendo’s character being traded like a tchotchke.
The most exciting thing here is the fact that Pictures of Superheroes exists, which should stand testament to any independent filmmakers concerned they can’t get their messed-up, peculiar films made. Working with his producing partner Kelly Williams and his friend Tate English, Swaynos’s picture makes up for in chuckles what it seems to be missing in B-roll. The film smells of an extremely well-guided microbudget, which tells us as much about the intrepidness of Swaynos and his crew (who did pickups on after-work weekends) as to where Superheroes might fit in the world. There is hope that those of us attracted to the combination of Waters surreality and Insane Clown Posse might have some sway in the film market: the movie is available on Video-on-Demand now across the board of providers. But considering how the film might fare in the art-house world – as so many Austin films these days try to, appropriately or not – is a more difficult prospect. Oh well – maybe, since it’s a movie about superheroes, we can expect a sequel.