Jonathan Bricklin’s “The Entrepreneur” is the “Death of a Salesman” of car movies. That’s not to say it reveals the depths of character explored in Arthur Miller’s classic text, but Bricklin does succeed at showing the precise mayhem of the business and the tragedy of missing the finish line. A portrait of the director’s father, seventy-year-old automobile entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin, the movie tracks an idea from concept to execution to frustration and failure. In other words, the whole equation.
None of Malcolm Bricklin’s ideas would have any merit if he lacked the pedigree to back them up. He first hit it big nearly forty years ago, when he launched Subaru of America, then lost his fortune in a sports car investment. His second chance came in the 1980s, when he made bank in the import business, but that money also vanished when Bricklin made unwise decisions about where to place his profits. “The Entrepreneur,” however, focuses on Bricklin’s third, most recent and riskiest endeavor: In 2003, he launched a new company called Visionary Vehicles, intending to find a Chinese company close to bankruptcy and make an import deal.
It’s no spoiler to let you know that he pulls it off, since there are so many bizarre twists in this distinctly American saga that I’m having trouble remembering all of them. The charm of “The Entrepreneur” comes from its ability to remain utterly fascinating even when it grows impenetrably dense.
Jonathan Bricklin, whose straight-forward voiceover guides viewers through the story, managed to gain access to nearly every step of his father’s latest venture, leading to a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse that no regular journalist could provide. Like the soon-to-be-released “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” another magnificent profile of an irrepressible personality, “The Entrepreneur” presents a famous, near-mythological character through a uniquely personal lens.
As Malcolm Bricklin engages in virtually non-stop negotiations with investors around the world, precipitously hovering on the cusp of making another fortune, the documentary recalls Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus’s “Start Up.com,” which also involves desperate shots at the American dream. But Bricklin’s feature has even broader roots in the Maysles brothers’s “Salesman,” in that it goes beyond the specificity of the job to focus on the central figure behind it. Though exceedingly likable, Malcolm is an undeniable control freak. “The only thing I can’t change,” he insists, “is my opinion.”
Malcolm’s incessant drive grows infectious — and feels vaguely familiar, given the current crisis in automobile world. In that sense, Jonathan Bricklin has crafted an enticing (if unintentional) metaphor for the troubled state of the car industry. The story ends on an inconclusive note, perhaps to the point where audiences will fee slightly gypped, but the journey to that point maintains a thrilling pace. Those in need of a good epilogue might consider reading the headlines of the past year.
[Editor’s Note: Eric Kohn is a frequent contributing writer to indieWIRE. “The Entrepreneur” is debuting on SnagFilms as part of its “Summer Fest” series. indieWIRE is owned by SnagFilms.]