“Nuts!” might be the closest we get to a documentary in the vein of Charlie Kaufman: It’s a seriocomic story of passion and desperation that transforms into something far more mysterious and provocative. Actually directed by Penny Lane (“Our Nixon”), this mesmerizing portrait of celebrity medical practitioner and radio mogul Dr. John Romulus Brinkley more or less takes place within its subject’s mind. Brilliantly combining archival material, voiceovers, contemporary interviews and a variety of hand-drawn animation, the movie deconstructs the process of self-mythologizing from the inside out.
While “Nuts!” begins with the animated shot of goats having sex, that’s hardly the wildest twist in this peculiar look at Brinkley’s rise and fall. At first a cheeky non-fiction portrait before it calls into question every detail of its sprawling tale, “Nuts!” stuffs a lot of information into 79 minutes. The lively saga finds Brinkley becoming a radio mogul twice, battling First Amendment rights in court, presaging the modern pharmaceutical industry and popularizing country music. Viewers already familiar with his irreverent tale are at a disadvantage — though few know his name today — because “Nuts!” recreates what it must have felt like to discover this legacy for the first time.
However, if you can’t resist the urge to look up the story for yourself, “Nuts!” compensates by finding an entirely original way to frame it. Opening in the 1920s, the movie follows Brinkley from his humble days as a pharmacist to the birth of his first moneymaking enterprise, in which he transplanted goat glands into impotent men with (apparent) great success. That questionable practice could fill an entire story, but it marks just the first chapter in Brinkley’s zany career.
Launching a radio enterprise at a crucial moment for the medium, he becomes a national resource for seemingly every facet of American society, predating the ease of googling for doctor advice by decades. When that enterprise hits a roadblock due to special interest groups, Brinkley shifts his focus to political ambitions, before circling back to another ambitious business proposition.
In the midst of all this, he also raises a family and develops a cabal of patients who attest to his great skills. Lane (with the help of a script by Thom Stylinski) combines archival material of charming southerner Brinkley’s suave pronouncements with animated exchanges and modern interviews to create a vivid sense of his expert showmanship. He’s the most interesting man in the world — or is Lane just messing with us?
“Nuts!” begins by taking its cues from a biography of Brinkley written by a man named Clement Woods entitled “The Life of a Man,” though the book’s version of Brinkley’s accomplishments are increasingly suspect. As with Kaufman’s “Adaptation,” Lane subtly places us into the perspective of the author and his version of events before pulling out the rug in a stellar climax that redefines everything building up to it.
“Nuts!” is a further testament to Lane’s skill, consistent with “Our Nixon,” which also utilized voiceovers and archival material to reconstruct its subject’s world. But “Nuts!” accomplishes something far trickier by focusing on a less famous huckster and turning his persistent desire for success into a more exciting element than any outside observation could provide. By no means a definitive study of the events it portrays, “Nuts!” leaves a lot of open questions about Brinkley’s motives at various points in his career. No matter the impact of its biggest revelations, they arrive so late in the game that aspects of the drama have an undercooked feel. Documentary purists could nitpick Lane’s tricky process to death.
But that would ruin the fun. There’s no question that Lane wrestles a bizarre story that defies any concise summary into one hugely entertaining package with a lot more going on than meets the eye. “Nuts!” raises questions surrounding religious convictions and entrepreneurial motives without stifling its material, and ends with a deep implication about Brinkley’s questionable tactics for achieving his goals. Deception may be an immoral act, but for its greatest practitioners, it’s also a work of art.
“Nuts!” is now playing at Film Forum in New York. It opens in Los Angeles on July 8.