Matt D’Elia, the writer, director and “star” of “American Animal,” plays Jimmy, a wiry twentysomething living off the considerable wealth of his rich father. He never leaves his apartment, despite repeatedly coughing up blood and showing noticeable signs of illness. Parading around his apartment in elaborate costumes, creating false identities for himself, and speaking in made-up languages, he considers each step he takes a sample of performance art, a “free show” for his “audiences.” He also hates jobs, disdains reading, and cares little for the comfort level of others around him, under the guise of “putting on the ritz.” The fact that he goes through the entirety of “American Animal” without being punched, murdered, or locked in a spaceship and shot into the sun is some sort of goddamned miracle.
How unfortunate that this impulsive manchild appears to be surrounded by enablers. The bulk of “American Animal” takes place within one day, where Jimmy and James (Brendan Fletcher) live in obscene wealth inside their sprawling apartment. We’re led to believe these two have been friends for a long time (James also appears to come from money), but James seems constantly blindsided by Jimmy’s reckless behavior and unending, meandering monologues. Despite sharing the same apartment, James just doesn’t seem to understand that Jimmy is a creature of obscene impulse, too intellectually lazy to be a criminal, too selfish to consider the needs of others a priority. Did they just meet yesterday?
Over the course of one booze-filled, pot-smoked evening, the truth seeps out: James has gotten a job, a paid internship with an office — everything that Jimmy hates. He suddenly feels betrayed, which is not unexpected — the whole universe revolves around him, apparently. In one particularly juvenile monologue, he traces the entirety of human civilization as building towards the moment he gets to “put on the ritz” in an extravagant, unearned apartment, through a cloud of purple haze.
Jimmy’s worldview naturally benefits from the doormats that surround him: Poor James is achingly ineloquent, seemingly unable to tune into Jimmy’s wavelength. Even when Jimmy announces his one hundred percent disapproval of a job of any kind (survival of the fittest allows him to not work, he claims), James continues to judge him for not wanting to contribute to society. As if this is a man who thinks there still is a society, a man who believes lives can and should still be saved. James also thoughtfully claims to be interested in saving a seat at work for Jimmy, should he change his mind. Dubious.
James and Jimmy parry pointlessly through the day and night as two Angelas (Mircea Monroe, Angela Sarafyan) watch. Both are there to toke up, and while neither are interested in the polite, handsome, unassuming James, both fall victim to the “charms” of his solipsistic friend. This despite an otherworldly unattractive physical appearance — often wearing only slim pink briefs, bearded Jimmy resembles excess merkin. Once he shaves it off, his string-bean physique is accentuated, his dark crew cut gives him a contrastingly ghoulish, gaunt countenance. Poor Sarafyan spends the entirety of the third act post-coital, partially undressed under a blanket, vomiting, being licked by a dog, and, even worse, having to suffer through another few endless Jimmy monologues.
“American Animal” is a deeply unpleasant viewing experience. Despite the supposedly comic nature of D’Elia’s flailing performance (mix Tom Green with a wired anime version of John Hawkes), “American Animal” is shot with an austere, sterile lens, weirdly accentuating that D’Elia seems to have come across a great location for a movie, but then forgot to make it appear lived-in, particularly for a manchild slacker who acts on impulse. The digital photography is crisp but dark, emphasizing the ugliness of D’Elia and his bastard of a character. There’s not a single moment of comfort in “American Animal” — intentional, sure, given that Jimmy is a confrontational live wire who puts viewers on edge.
But most of “American Animal” is similarly formless, absent of ideas, a sponsor of despair in lieu of hope. It’s bleak, apocalyptic filmmaking in the very worst sense: It doesn’t believe in anything, it doesn’t endorse anything, except for the abyss of nihilism under the guise of intellectual restlessness. Matt D’Elia has made a deadening, masturbatory, visually underwhelming film with absolutely no redeeming value. Whatever moments of dialogue that aren’t yelled to the rafters (usually chopped-up, out-of-context movie quotes), are mundane miscommunications, repeated to the point of replicating a reality that no viewer would recognize. If “American Animal” is proof of Matt D’Elia’s aptitude and understanding of the world, it showcases him as someone who looks at humanity and only sees the worst, who views us as a society of simpletons twiddling our thumbs until the apocalypse. It is a film without joy, without insight, without hope. If there is a kind God, he is ensuring once “American Animal” plays to empty theaters this coming weekend, each digital copy will be buried in a desert no map can locate. [F]