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REVIEW | United Absurdity: Kenneth Price’s “Americatown”

REVIEW | United Absurdity: Kenneth Price's "Americatown"

From the shaky production values to its cast of grinning newcomers, the bizarro satire “Americatown” reeks of amateurism. Yet despite all odds working against it, director Kenneth Price’s second feature with the Wilmington-based comedy group Superkiiiids! sustains a uniquely goofy charm. Set in an imagined community comprised of perpetually upbeat characters named after brand names, the cheery facade takes inspired jabs at capitalism, which it cleverly subverts by the very nature of its low-rent DIY look. The whole thing is a flimsy parody of an easy target—at best infectious and at worst gratingly incoherent, but uniformly original.

The story takes place in the “land of the free-radicools,” a mishmash of middle American platitudes managed by “Roosevelt Microsoft” (Cory Howard), the so-called “kiosk-man,” alongside a loopy mayor (Jon Stafford) always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. After an intentionally jarring infomercial introduces the town’s cozy appeal, the elevated weirdness never lets up. Roosevelt eagerly greets Americatown’s newest citizen, “Plymouth Rayband” (Jonathan Guggenheim), just as another resident goes missing, bringing the previously utopian balance of 1,000 people to an apparently problematic 999 (according to “Texas Instruments,” Americatown’s trusty census taker). Bearing the frenzied results of a behind-the-scenes roadtrip, the scenario appears to involve aspects of innumerable U.S. cities and the nationalistic state of mind that connects them. (When Roosevelt takes Plymouth on a tour of the town, they walk from Old Faithful to Mount Rushmore in a single cut.)

If you can get past the shoddy digital video and scatterbrained design, “Americatown” eventually finds its way to a cockamamie plot. One spilled cup of coffee becomes the central tragedy that threatens to disrupt the local serenity. Roosevelt heads out of town to find the missing citizen while Plymouth uncertainly assumes kiosk duties. Pandemonium ensues; a chainsaw-wielding political candidate and inter-dimensional travel eventually figure into the mix. Eventually, it becomes clear (if that’s the right word) that Americatown exists everywhere at once.

I’m trying to explain this to the best of my ability, but look: Price’s zany experimental approach is tough to digest unless you take it as some kind of meta-textual Godardian wannabe, which at least justifies the craziness. When the consumerist gags work, “Americatown” vaguely recalls aspects of Robert Downey, Sr.’s “Putney Swope,” or the mock patriotism of William Klein’s “Mr. Freedom.” But it’s mostly a lark, and entirely a mess. Then again, that mess contributes to the movie’s intriguing collage-like feel. Price’s enticing mash-up of brands and places conveys a treatise on the vapidity of commercial branding worthy of philosopher Jean Baudrillard. It has plenty of verve, if not the means to pull off everything it intends to say.

Having not seen Price’s first feature, “Lightning Salad Moving Picture,” I can’t speak to any sort of consistency in his work. But the director’s style—at least in “Americatown”—seems to have more in common with the free-handed aesthetic associated with online videos rather than anything cinematic. It could work wonders on YouTube, where non-sequitur humor easily goes viral, and suggests how that form of presentation might develop a post-modern dimension. That doesn’t mean “Americatown” plays like anything other than a distended sketch comedy by overextended sketch comics, but it’s a start.

criticWIRE grade: B-

”Americatown” opens today at the reRun Gastropub in Dumbo.

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