A charlatan, a ringmaster, and, at his most charitable, an irresponsible pig. This was Morton Downey Jr., and “Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie” is probably the film he deserves. Destined to provoke knowing nods from his fanbase, and predictable tsk-tsks from his detractors, ‘Evocateur’ examines the seeds that were planted in the late eighties when “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” hit the airwaves to a cacophony of pop culture noise.
From the directing team of Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger, ‘Evocateur’ highlights Downey’s immodest beginnings, as the liberal son to a crooning father and a mistreated starlet wife. Downey tried music, and even dabbled in poetry before finding his calling, as a hard-right entertainer taking on the guise of a “voice of the people.” ‘Evocateur’ takes great pains to illustrate that Downey wasn’t the first to welcome on-air confrontation with obnoxious braggadocio, nor is he the last, with face-time given to the sub-literate likes of Glenn Beck.
In fact, ‘Evocateur’ manages to give more than significant ammo to those who would consider Downey a pox on popular television: his hell-raising chat show, which ran for slightly less than two years at the tail-end of the eighties, is sampled in all its provocative glory. The program gave loud voice to the backwards sentiments of its Secaucus, New Jersey studio audience, a fire stoked by Downey’s confrontational, judgmental tone that slandered lower classes, minorities and women. ‘Evocateur’ doesn’t hang Downey, but this was a man begging for a noose, and the short period where his program put him on the map was merely time allowed for Downey to properly secure the knot.
The camera captures the reunion of a small group of Downey’s audience regulars, but this segment becomes one of the film’s more ineffective as it fails to illustrate this bombastic troublemaker’s mercurial appeal. We don’t learn much about this group of white-collars and why Downey spoke to their specific life situation, boiling remembrances down to “man, those were crazy days.” It’s part of the film’s attempt to avoid any relevance between Downey’s voice and contemporary attitudes — the picture’s timeline seems to conclude roughly after his show’s cancellation, with a brief pitstop in 2001, when Downey’s fading health claimed his life. No time to establish whether hindsight determined if Downey was a token nutcase, or if he actually was a distorted voice of a generation.
Directors Kramer, Miller and Newberger prefer embellishment, allowing personal stories about Downey to fuel animated re-enactments that trivialize rather than penetrate. When Downey is heard speaking of his shock that his appeal has extended to young schoolgirls, scantily-clad cartoon babes climb aboard his thick, pink limousine. In case the metaphor was missed, said limo then tilts upward in an erect curve. Further goofs include a moment where Downey’s surprisingly revealing poetry from his youth is read aloud, then mocked, by comedian Chris Elliot, who seems to have no ties to Downey other than being a fan, but not enough to keep his shtick out of a documentary about the man.
The issue of race is bound to provoke, considering the incendiary Downey’s unpredictable relationship with the black community. Downey’s former producers, all crowing over their former boss’ excess, make the claim that they introduced Reverend Al Sharpton to the public at large, thanks to confrontational appearances on the show that nonetheless revealed Downey and Sharpton as allies. Later, a disproportionate amount of time is spent on Downey’s coverage of the Tawana Brawley trial, an in-depth perspective only made to later compare with Downey’s career lowlight: a faked attack from nonexistent skinheads made specifically to drum up publicity. It’s an uneasy comparison, and like most of ‘Evocateur’ and Downey’s own show, you hate yourself for not looking away. [C]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.