We’ll laugh at a talented comedian’s various musings on pop culture, politics, stupid people, or their shitty life — but we don’t often see this person away from the stage, working out their routines, or even going through those situations that fill the clubs with chortles. Removed from the brick backdrop and spotlight, these moments would likely take a different shape — an ugly and uncomfortable one, and it’s a wonder how many people (even junkies of that specific entertainment) would actually be game to watch it. But such is the premise for Dustin Guy Defa’s small, no-budget second effort “Bad Fever,” in which the director subjects the audience to the lonely ramblings of Eddie (Kentucker Audley, “Open Five“) as he searches for a worthwhile human connection, crafting his humorous, mile-a-minute perspectives on life.
Shot in the renegade hand-held style of digital that generally makes up these barely financed productions, Eddie wanders the wasteland of America (decrepit train yards, dreary fields) mumbling into a recording device. His style is vaguely reminiscent of a less polished Mitch Hedberg, as weird as that is to say given the late funny man’s penchant for sounding less rehearsed and more inebriated. The film opens with the jester filling up at a gas station, his loner lifestyle derailed after vagrant Irene (Eleonore Hendricks, “The Pleasure Of Being Robbed“) convinces him to buy her cigarettes. It’s this small gesture of charity that begins their relationship, with her bossy nature able to coerce not only a diner meal out of him but also an involvement in a series of weird videos (eating cereal, etc.) that “some guy pays her to do.”
It’s not necessarily a relationship movie, though their odd interactions do make up a great chunk of the running time. Other moments include Eddie’s life at home with his mother (a permanent fixture in front of the television) and brief stints of employment in tree removal, with the most important arc involving persistent meetings with a club owner. Trying his damndest to get a slot at a future comedy night, he eventually succeeds and sets up the final do-or-die moment, inviting his “girlfriend” Irene and mother out to see his debut performance.
Given the tone of the film, there’s no question as to whether or not his performance will be a disaster, but Defa does take an interesting turn with it, showing just how oblivious Eddie’s character actually is. His routine — as well as the snippets of other material we overhear throughout — is definitely uncomfortable, but the soft-spoken blather is also legitimately funny. One liners such as “Does anybody even want to stop and think that maybe I don’t have as great a life as anybody thinks I do?” are awkwardly hilarious for a number of reasons, though most prominently because we’re not even sure any human being actually thinks that about him. Simply basing a movie around a terrible comedian would be much easier, but here you can see an interesting style in its infancy, possibly marred (or, in this writer’s opinion, helped) by a severe insecurity.
“Bad Fever” is part of the long string of recent movies that subverts the notion that we’re meant to watch characters that we’d love to either be friends with or simply just “be” — in no lifetime would someone ever plaster their desktop background with pictures of Audley or Hendricks (of course that’s a call to arms — send in your entries now). No one is particularly likable and it’s safe to assume that some parties might even find them to be a bit too pathetic or hopeless. But the director doesn’t do this simply for the sake of provocation, it just fits the premise of following an eccentric guy unable to build a bond with anyone. Defa also manages to keep it truthful, with the movie thankfully free of any forced, pleading emotion hoping to garner audience sympathy.
Maybe its substance is a bit slight when all is said and done, but not everyone is out to expose societal issues or pose philosophical questions, and there should be a place for those simple stories as well. Frequently amusing, “Bad Fever” is probably the least dangerous thing you can catch at a movie theater. [B-]