Richard Kuchera, the supremely flawed subject of Joshua Neale’s documentary “Despicable Dick and Righteous Richard,” has a personality ready-made for the movies. A recovering alcoholic attempting to make up with everyone affected by his behavior, the North Dakota resident is a tragically slapstick figure, doomed to continually screw up no matter how sincerely he tries to correct his life.
After half a century of shameless alcoholic binges, audacious con jobs and relentless philandering with little regard for the various friends and relatives he wounded along the way, Kuchera has spent a dozen years stuck on steps eight and nine of a 12-step recovery program. Those two notches require that he make amends with the long list of people he has wronged, which proves no easy feat.
As he travels around, meeting with sons, daughters, ex-wives and old girlfriends, nobody gives Kuchera an easy out — including Kuchera himself. Shot in a verité style with a folksy soundtrack that underscores the man’s dwindling carefree outlook, the movie puts secular redemption under the microscope, using Kuchera’s journey as its singularly amusing case study.
Kuchera falls in line with a variety of existing screen characters, both real and fictional. His sloppy shot at redemption resembles the setup of “My Name is Earl,” while his apparent inability to recognize his continuing misdeeds calls to mind Kenny Powers, the bumbling star of HBO’s “Eastbound and Down.” Primarily, though, Kuchera bears a marked similarity to Jack Rebney, the crotchety real-life focus of last year’s “Winnebago Man.”
Like Rebney, the 69-year-old Kuchera has a dark, murky past and wears a constant look of regret. Both men are at once hilarious and sad manifestations of their many mistakes. However, while Rebney became an unlikely celebrity when a tape of his angry outbursts went viral, Kuchera is a nobody with nothing at stake except for his personal satisfaction, which calls his motives into question.
“He’s not capable of feeling empathy for other people,” Kuchera’s second wife says, an observation illustrated by a scene in the middle of his cross-country mea culpa, when he insists on taking his wife to a strip club on his 69th birthday, despite her constant protests. “I like a lot of my wrong behaviors,” he sighs. Neale’s main asset is an ability to capture these painfully intimate asides. As Kuchera recalls his devilish track record, which includes spousal abuse and relentless infidelity, he often sobs. He’s either legitimately good-intentioned or wishes he could be. (At one point, he tries to give advice to his current flame’s rebellious teenage son, and awkwardly strikes out.)
Those witnessing Kuchera’s apparent remorse debate the ramifications of feeling bad for him: “It’s so easy to be negative about what our old man has done,” says one of Kuchera’s sons, praising his behavior for being boldly antiestablishment. Viewers can watch Kuchera decide for themselves whether this argument has merit.
After a while, Kuchera’s constant chatter with his estranged community grows tiresome. Because the improvement of his behavior is never complete, Neale can’t find a satisfying end to his story. Having explored the scenario and the psychological intricacies of its compelling antihero, “Despicable Dick” never arrives at a firm conclusion, but the journey is fascinating precisely because of that.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? If embraced by the world of addiction recovery, “Despicable Dick” could have a healthy life in limited release, possibly aided by strong grassroots efforts that bring the movie to audiences who can identify with Kuchera’s plight.
criticWIRE grade: B+