“Based on a true story that hasn’t happened yet.” These words preface David Cross’s directorial debut, “Hits,” a savage film of pungent humor forecasting a grim trajectory for the state of fame-addled American society. Cross, the comedian best known for his role on “Arrested Development,” throws his cast of uniformly unlikeable characters into a chaotic whirlwind of YouTube-fueled scandal and ugly fame. Timely as it is, the movie’s critique of Brooklyn hipsters and ultra-conservative Middle America can’t obscure the superficial treatment that “Hits” affords to its characters.
Nevertheless, it must be noted the premise of “Hits” contains some throwaway moments or brilliance. The film welcomes us to Liberty, New York, a town so upstate that when one of the encroaching “citiots” tosses away her electric kettle in the trash, there’s a local on site to bring the perfectly good machine back home. That’s Dave Stuben (Matt Walsh, “The Hangover”), the unlikely town revolutionary. While he pounds the podium at the town council meetings like a hyperbolized libertarian to protest ridiculous civil liberty encroachments from the lack of plow activity on his street to the absence of the Italian Special from a local restaurant, Dave’s a pretty chill guy. The aspiration of his daughter Katelyn (a very good Meredith Hagner, last seen in “Damsels in Distress”) to record a demo for “The Voice” with local stoner Julian (Jason Ritter ) might worry some fathers, not to mention her proclivity to wear outrageously revealing sweatsuits — but not Dave. His greatest dad moment is simply that they can share just one pizza for dinner.
Little does Dave realize that his performances are about to go viral with a little help from the liberal media. When a Brooklyn potdealer (Michael Cera) shows the uber-PC head of a Brooklyn think tank, Donovan McCaffrey (James Adomian), a video of one of Dave’s rants, Donovan envisions the next internet-fueled social justice cause. He’s thinking Occupy Wall Street, Anonymous-level social movement. After gathering the boys, Babatunde (Wyatt Cenac) and Larson (Derek Waters), the crew heads for Liberty to document Dave’s story. But when Donovan’s YouTube video of the city council rants—cut with a screaming eagle and “Anatomy of a Murder,” for good measure—develops a massive following, new social justice causes from the boroughs descend on the unsuspecting town. Dave’s exaggerated sense of civic injustice suits the social justice rhetoric of the Brooklyn crew.
Cross spares neither conservative nor liberal perspectives in his indictment of the internet age to great effect. The fame-grubbing residents of Liberty fall prey to Cross’s sharp dialogue as the wannabe stars of instant YouTube and reality television fame. While not exactly the stars of “Honey Boo Boo,” Liberty’s population is so distinctly tacky that an envious Katelyn wonders whether her classmate on “16 and Pregnant” got knocked up before or after her MTV audition.
Equal resentment characterizes the portrayal of the Brooklyn hipster crowd, which is magnetically drawn to media train wrecks from the other side of the lens. In one of the film’s few clever sleights of camerawork, Cross shoots Donovon and his ilk from the perspective of their computers. As if constantly monitored by the inward-facing camera, the hipsters act with painful self-consciousness informed by social media.
Cross shows some creative ingenuity in his movie’s sheer disdain for hipster ethos. One memorable scene has Donovon and his Greenpoint crew admiring a local huckster’s American flag shirt: “I love it, it’s funny. I meant funny as, like, odd. It’s normal, actually.” Cross’s dialogue effortlessly highlights the muddling insufficiency of activism’s new rhetoric. By the time the Zipcar “recognizes” Babtunde, though, the punchline has gone a beat too long.
The film’s holier-than-thou approach produces laughs in the initial scenes but edges closer to bland misanthropy once Liberty’s developed characters get their unjust deserts. Dangling the potential for sympathetic protagonists in early scenes but yanking empathy away by the end, Cross’ storytelling veers from comedy to cruelty. In the film’s best scene, Katelyn mimics an interview with Ellen Degeneres after charming $300 off of her devoted father. When fake-Ellen asks her when she first realized she wanted to sing, Katelyn says she owes much of her fame to her supportive father. “He’s a good dad,” she says, tearing up. Even with her scripted response, Hagner’s fine performance adds a strangely affecting power to Katelyn’s realization—only to be entirely forgotten by the savage finale. Let’s just say it involves a wildly out-of-tune rendition of Sara Bareille’s “Brave” and a shotgun.
The best feature-length satires synthesize critique and credibility. Plagued with uneven pacing and tone, “Hits” feels more like a rant. The carelessness afforded its characters forms an ironically conservative stand against the new tide in an internet-savvy culture. “Just everything about him resonated common,” Donovon says of Dave Stuben, who becomes famous overnight. The same could be said for the author’s regard for the warring factions of urban liberals and rural conservatives that populate his film. Their bizarre similarities have all the potential to say something new. If only the film gave credence to its characters.
Criticwire Grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Cross’s devoted fan base will undoubtedly turn up to support the director’s Sundance crowd-pleaser and the impressive slate of comedy talent. However, extremely low production values and amateurish filmmaking limit its long-term theatrical prospects, and it will most likely wind up with a limited response on VOD.