Is a self-indulgent, self-referential movie any less annoying if it unabashedly acknowledges its self-indulgence and self-referentiality? That’s one of the central questions posited by “On the Road with Judas,” a slick, boy-meets-girl meta-movie that takes its inspirations from Charlie Kaufman and Woody Allen. Written, directed, edited, co-starring and adapted from a book by JJ Lask, the film is not as confounding as it first seems, nor is it as clever. But Lask should be applauded for trying something new and putting a postmodern spin on what is ultimately an earnest tale of unfulfilled love.
After a frustrating initial 15 minutes, in which Kevin Corrigan appears as “JJ Lask” on an imaginary talk show (hosted by the real writer-director JJ Lask) talking about his book called “On the Road with Judas,” the film begins to make perfect sense. Corrigan’s novel, and the movie itself, tells the story of Judas and Francis, two young men who steal computers from college campuses and then adopt them for their own business. At a certain point, Francis is arrested for trying to break into a computer center and Judas falls in love with a dancer named Serra.
Instead of a conventional narrative, Lask, the filmmaker, decides to reveal the story through a combination of the talk-show format and reenacted flashbacks, where real and fiction intertwine, and Judas, Francis, and Serra are depicted in the flesh as both the characters in the book and actors playing the characters in the book. For instance, Aaron Ruell (last seen as Kip Dynamite in “Napoleon Dynamite“) plays the clean-cut and soft-spoken “real” Judas of the book, while Eddie Kaye Thomas (of “American Pie” fame) portrays an “actor” playing Judas in many of the reenactments. Sometimes, to make the po-mo statement more pronounced, Ruell and Thomas are exchanged within the same sequences.
All the actors, it should be noted, do a fine job, and Lask has made an excellent choice by casting people who all look extremely different; it’s easier to make sense of what’s going on. And extra props go to Todd Solondz regular Matt Faber, last seen in “Palindromes,” who turns in a fantastic cameo as Grif, a white-haired computer nerd who offers, “How many Pac-Men does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
But the film’s blurring of realities can feel wearisome and smug. Sometimes, it produces a few surprisingly witty moments, such as one instance when the “real” Judas (Ruell) tries to flirt with the “actress” playing Serra (Amanda Loncar). Would the “real” Serra (Eleanor Hutchins) have been jealous or flattered if she caught their dalliance? Or when Ruell and Thomas are both interviewed on the talk-show couch together, it’s amusing to see Thomas speak to Ruell about what he should have done in the story.
If it sounds pretentious or narcissistic, Lask accepts that and embraces it. In one scene, the character of Serra (Hutchins) is talking to the author Lask (Corrigan) about his book, complaining about his female characterizations and saying it “suffers from self-indulgence.” “You put Narcissus to shame,” she adds. It’s kind of funny, yes, but it doesn’t entirely cover Lask’s creative ass.
While “On the Road with Judas” shares some similarities with Michel Gondry‘s recent “The Science of Sleep“–for one thing, the talk-show set looks like it could be in the studio next door to “Stephane TV“–the differences are revealing. Both films engage with the creative process, but Gondry’s vision not only explores the blurring of real and unreal, it exposes the screwed-up infantile nature of his protagonist. As seemingly complex as “On the Road with Judas” is, the movie seems oblivious to its adolescent point-of-view on life and love. As Gondry discovered, the failure to distinguish between reality and fiction isn’t something to be flaunted, but is often a sign of immaturity.
Get the latest coverage of Park City ’07 in indieWIRE’s special section here at indieWIRE.com