Monday, April 11, 2016

Movies That May Not Have Sucked: Freddy Got Fingered (2001)

Reflections on one of the most innovative - and woefully misinterpreted - comedies of all-time

By: Jimbo X

"Many years ago, when surrealism was new, Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali made Un Chien Andalou, a film so shocking that Bunuel filled his pockets with stones to throw at the audience if it attacked him. Green, whose film is in the surrealist tradition, may want to consider the same tactic. The day may come when Freddy Got Fingered is seen as milestone of neo-surrealism. The day may never come when it is seen as funny."

- Roger Ebert, in his review of Freddy Got Fingered (2001)

Seeing Freddy Got Fingered when it was first released was one of the most incredible movie-going experiences of my life. Granted, it wasn't as memorable as that time I went to go see Cabin Fever and a guy I knew from high school got up and pissed on the back row seats because he didn't want to miss the movie or that time I got a blow job from a woman who was literally twice as old as I was during G-Force, but it was memorable nonetheless

I'd never seen a mass walkout at a theater before or since. It was about 30 minutes into the movie when the audience just couldn't take it anymore - a pretty astounding feat, seeing as how they managed to stomach earlier scenes in which the main character slit open a deer carcass and ran around wearing its bloody husk like a rain jacket. Or the scene where he masturbated a horse. Or the scene where his best friend breaks his ankle in a skateboarding mishap, and our "hero" inexplicably started licking the bone fragment jutting out of his pierced flesh

But by the time Tom Green was yanking babies out of vaginas and chewing through umbilical cords with his teeth - while Hispanic women with tambourines sang a weirdly calming tribal chant - the crowd was D-O-N-E. These poor bastards went into Freddy Got Fingered expecting "The Bum Bum Song" for an hour and a half, only to get assailed by scenes of bloody infants being swung around hospital rooms and handicapped women having their nonfunctional legs beaten with bamboo canes for sexual pleasure. 

Fifteen year later, I'm not sure if Tom Green succeeded or failed with his directorial debut. On one hand, the audience-alienating film's disastrous performance at the box office pretty much killed his career; you young-uns may not believe it, but at the time, the unexpected MTV breakout star was being touted as the next Conan O'Brien. After Freddy Got Fingered, though, Green lost his TV show, he was relegated to one-joke supporting cast roles in really bad PG-13 comedies and, pretty much throwing the funerary dirt atop his professional livelihood, it was only a matter of time until he was wheeled out on that carousel of has-beens, Celebrity Apprentice

But as a gigantic practical joke on the movie-going masses, however, Green's success cannot be ignored. Andy Kaufman would no doubt be proud of Green's accomplishment with Freddy Got Fingered; not only did he manage to cajole a major movie studio into making and mass marketing a feature film with jokes about paraplegics with peculiar paraphilias and a running gag in which a child is repeatedly bloodied in freak accidents - not to mention a title that, contextually, alludes to a form of heinous (albeit fabricated) child abuse - he completely pulled the rug out from underneath the hundreds of thousands of people who paid money to see what they thought would be a harmless, paint-by-numbers "a-dolt" comedy." This was the culmination of Tom Green's pop cultural success, the end result he orchestrated out of his mainstream appeal. Hollywood wanted to cash in on his TV stardom, they unwisely gave him carte blanche and they erroneously thought middle America, who enjoyed watching him take cows into grocery stores and mess up weather forecasting segments on small-market newscasts, would "get" Freddy's subversive, gory humor. 

Oh, how very wrong they were on all accounts. The film was a financial flop, grossing barely $14 million at the box office and just slightly covering the costs of its production. It was nominated for eight Razzies "awards" - the annual Anti-Oscars that "celebrates" the worst films produced by Hollywood - ultimately winning five, including worst film of 2001 (Green was actually at the event to pick up his litany of "awards," with his acceptance speech for worst film an extended harmonica solo.) The film holds an abysmal 11 percent Rotten Tomatoes ranking and a 13 out of 100 score on Metacritic. Just how much did critics hate this movie? Well, here are some of the more positive things I could find from reviews of Freddy

- Desson Howe, The Washington Post

- Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle

- Stephen Hunter, The Washington Post

Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today

What's interesting to me is that, even when angrily dissecting the film, the critics themselves seem to be keenly aware of what it is, precisely, that makes Freddy such a remarkable movie. You see the same references to Dali and Kaufman and Bunuel pop up over and over again, so clearly, they understood Green's post-surrealism intent. But why did they hate that so much? In a cinema-scape littered with brain-dead pre-9/11 offerings like Tomcats and Saving Silverman and Joe Dirt, what made Freddy Got Fingered, as Ebert so delicately put it in his seething review, unworthy of even being "mentioned in the same sentence with barrels?"

Simply put, they hated Tom Green for creating a sharper critique of the Hollywood-Industrial complex than they ever could. Simultaneously, Freddy is both a parody of the churn-em-out, no-brow bro-comedy and a deconstruction of the genre. It strips away the farcical, unreal reality of wannabe gross-out, testosterone-enthused films like Slackers and American Pie and depicts the cinematic male gaze as the grotesque, nauseating construct it really is. After guffawing at the dimwitted antics of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley for the better part of a decade, Green's film comes in like a tornado made out of knives, absolutely skewering the juvenile comedy genre until it can hardly be recognized as "comedy" anymore. And, in that, Green may have succeeded; after the pathetic ticket sales for Freddy, Hollywood more or less abandoned the man-child comedy for more feminine-friendly, less visceral genre fodder like Mean Girls and Freaky Friday and any number of Tina Fey vehicles. 

That's not to say Freddy is a feminist work, by any means. Rather, it is a film that doesn't see the "comedy" in the misogynistic, dudebro shenanigans in Tommy Boy and Billy Madison, instead focusing on a protagonist in the Adam Sandler/Chris Farley vein who is unquestionably disturbed and wholly incapable of functioning in society (save, of course, the only industry insane enough to hire him - the entertainment business.) Green's character Gordy Brody is not meant to be likable, he's meant to scare the living shit out of us; he's the walking definition of what we now refer to as "the omega male," a sad-sack combination of bottled-up rage, entitlement and and a downright sociopathic disregard for the safety, well-being and mere existence of others. In a way, Freddy does a better job illustrating the American psycho than even American Psycho did. After all, the typical lunatic in the U.S. isn't some suave maniac with a double life and dollops of synthetic charm - instead, they are stark-raving narcissistic, layabouts like Tom Green's character, the sort of spoiled sorts who are too lazy to even leave their parents' basements and interact with society. 

It's very, very easy to see shades of Adam Lanza and Elliot Rodger in Tom Green's 28-year-old, aggrieved nerd-psychopath. Gordy is a coddled suburbanite scumbag, whose parents - rather than give him a stern talking to about responsibility and taking care of one's own affairs - allow him to wallow in a sheltered, fantasy-realm where he's free to draw shitty cartoons all day instead of paying his own way in the world.  If there was ever a shining example of "white privilege," Green's character is it - by virtue of the genetic lottery, he's granted the luxury to do absolutely nothing at all with his life, and from the get-go, we are supposed to hate his guts for it. 

The general storyline of Freddy is rather straightforward. Gordy, after much debate, decides to leave his Oregon enclave to try his hand at Hollywood. He gets a job in a cheese sandwich factory(*) where he assaults Hispanic women with cheddar but doesn't get arrested for it, let alone fired, and lies to an animation studio CEO to talk about his idiotic cartoon characters (in many ways, Green's character eerily portends the rise of the Brony subculture.) After his unsightly doodles are rejected, Green returns home, where his mother continues to, well, mother him, while his dad (brilliantly played by Rip Torn) slowly loses his patience (and, eventually, sanity) over his perpetually dawdling son's aimless ways. 

The real "hero" of the film is clearly Torn's character, Jim Brody, who comes to represent that archetypal blue-collar worker - i.e.,  the selfless family man who puts the needs of his kin above his own. The Green/Torn dichotomy almost perfectly captures the argument put forth in Benjamin Barber's Consumed, a tremendous 2007 tome addressing how today's infantilized consumer culture has more or less slain the Protestant work ethic and as result, created an entire generation of responsibility-averse "adults" incapable of managing their own existences. Indeed, the film almost personifies The Dumbest Generation described in Mark Bauerlein's 2009 screed, and in some respects, even acknowledges some of Allan Bloom's arguments in The Closing of the American Mind from 1986. 

It's not just the Gordy is an idiot, it's that he represents a special breed of idiot, a socially-withdrawn anti-person known in Japanese culture as "hikikomori" - a young person who decides to never leave his parents' home and never become a full-fledged adult, instead opting for an anti-life intentionally walled away from meaningful human interaction so he can remain totally absorbed in juvenalia like anime, video games and proxy Internet camaraderie. In that case, Jim Brody comes to represent the old guard Japanese salaryman persona; while his aspiration-less son has no qualms bumming it up at home, he gleefully engages in karoshi-baiting overwork to avoid that ultimate baby boomer sin, idleness. For Jim, shiftlessness is eternal torment, while for Gordy, sloth is the only cardinal virtue worth celebrating. 

Gordy is the diametric opposite of his 25-year-old younger brother Freddy, a comparable go-getter who - despite scoring free breakfast at mom and dad's every morning - has unmistakably graduated to adult independence. He has his own apartment, and his job at the local bank apparently pays well enough to keep him financially afloat. He's also the primary victim of the film, being labeled the recipient of hideous sexual abuse at the hands of his father by his older brother - this, despite an utter and complete lack of evidence. Regardless, it's enough to cause children's protective services to whisk Freddy away - and, remember, this is a man in his mid-20s - to a group home alongside actual child abuse victims, who for some inexplicable reason, spend their days watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on cathode ray tube television sets. You don't have to be a master psychoanalyst to pick up the subtext there regarding the literal infantilization of adults, but if that's still too subtle for you, there's a scene earlier where Tom Green leaps through the window of a psychiatrist's office, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest style, while holding a bust of Sigmund Freud and screaming "child molester!" at the top of his lungs. Sure, sure, the film can be read as an oblique text about the far-reaching consequences of child abuse - indeed, one almost wants Gordy's outrageous, antisocial behavior to be explained away by years of repressed maltreatment - but no, Freddy Got Fingered never gives us that comfort. This isn't a film about the evils of adulthood tainting one's childhood; rather, it's a film about the banality of childhood wrecking one's adulthood. 

Although Gordy engages in behavior that, at best, is socially unacceptable and, at worst, felonious, no one around him - excluding his father - seem to interpret his actions as unacceptable. This may be Green's way of implying that, culturally, we've come to embrace the infantilization of adults as a social reality. One does't need to look too hard to find example after example after example of Gen Y's glaringly anti-adult sentiments, which ultimately boils down to a complete immersion - if not outright worship - of the consumer society. It's tempting to paint Green's character as something of an autistic anomaly, but his self-absorbed, responsibility-shirking, hyper-entitled ways are pretty much a hallmark of the Millennial mentality taken as a whole. Yes, it is taken to some pretty out there extremes, but in hindsight, it almost seems as if Green was warning us that our celebrity-obsessed, suburban-gated, anti-productive culture was slowly but surely transforming an entire generation into shiftless, obligation-averse egotists. 

Eventually, Gordy's semi-sociopathic misdeeds - consider his antics one part Marx Brothers slapstick and one part Jeffrey Dahmer sex crimescompletely destroys his family. His shenanigans - donning scuba gear and searching for "treasure" in toilets, throwing cheese at customers at a sandwich shop, causing absolute mayhem at fancy dinners, etc. - drives his father to the brink of insanity, eventually causing his wife to leave him to go have sex with Shaquille O'Neal (believe it or not, a suggestion from her own son.) Inadvertently, however, Jim's hyper-violent reaction to his son's idleness has the inverse effect of actually helping Gordy sell his Roman a clef cartoon about zebra-people to a Nickelodeon-type studio for $1 million - which, of course, Gordy immediately splurges on a convoluted prank to uproot their house and literally air-mail it to Pakistan. 

Yes, all of this sounds very random, but that may be the point. Through no effort of his own, Gordy finds financial success on the merits of his father's work; gifted a safe, sheltered, suburban existence, he was afforded the opportunity to slack and channel his creative energies - which are almost wholeheartedly anchored around his resentment of his father and his "nonsensical" hard work ethics - into a successful enterprise that effectively reinforces the adolescent ideals of sloth, self-centeredness and entitlement

In that, perhaps Freddy is something of a subtle mea culpa for Green's short-lived multimedia success. He became a millionaire and wound up sleeping with A-list celebrities, not for his intellect or his courage or any other positive traits, but simply because he hosted a weird talk show where he did gross things and acted retarded in front of people. The unwarranted success of Gordy in Freddy Got Fingered mirrors the success of Green in real life; perhaps knowing it would eventually lead to even more prurient lowbrow fodder like Jackass, Bumfights and really, the entire WorldStarHipHop cyber-shock user-generated dystopia, maybe Freddy is Green's way of apologizing in advance. Perhaps he knew that his MTV "comedy" was to open the floodgates for such noxious media in the future, and the abject horror of Freddy Got Fingered is his sly way of acknowledging, and picking up the blame, for the tsunami of anti-intellectual (and antisocial) miasma that would soon bombard the airwaves and our inboxes. 

Perhaps all of this is coincidental, and maybe I am giving the movie - and Tom Green as an artist - too much credit. Then again, the subtext is so incredibly blunt at times in Freddy that one can't help but feel that Green was trying to get some kind of under-the-radar social commentary across amid all the jokes about ejaculating elephants and beating up the handicapped.

Even the name of the hypothetical cartoon studio in the film, Radioactive Animation, has a certain anti-pop culture ring to it. Surely, a scene featuring Green staring slack-jawed in front of a bunch of mock toxic waste drums - in front of a mural reading "TV wants you dead" - has to have SOME kind of deeper symbolic meaning, doesn't it?


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