Actor David Arquette — who once posed on the cover of Vanity Fair alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, and the rest of 1996’s hottest leading men before the “Scream” franchise left him typecast as a terminal doofus — is just kind of sick of being a joke. “I’m just kind of sick of being a joke,” the now-48-year-old laments at one point in his new documentary while dressed in nothing but a rhinestone cape and vaping on the back of a pony in his backyard. It’s a funny moment in a movie full of good-natured howlers, but Arquette isn’t kidding. On the contrary, he’s willing to die for a little respect. And he just might have to in order to earn the kind of respect he’s looking for.
It all started when Arquette partnered with World Championship Wrestling to promote his goofy 2000 comedy “Ready to Rumble.” Well, technically it all started with Arquette’s childhood dreams of jumping into the ring alongside the likes of Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan, but the WCW audience didn’t know about that lifelong passion when the scrawny movie star came strolling into their arena and walked away with the championship belt (a scripted turn of events that Arquette vehemently protested behind the scenes, as he knew that wrestling fans would resent him for belittling their sport’s ultimate prize). Just like that, Arquette became too silly for Hollywood, and too Hollywood for wrestling. By trying to split the difference between one kind of showbiz and another, this overgrown kid — a self-described “carney at heart” — found himself rejected from them both.
At the beginning of David Darg and Price James’ “You Cannot Kill David Arquette,” its washed up namesake complains that he hasn’t had a successful audition in 10 years. That framing might distort the fact that Arquette remains a working actor (you might have seen him in “Bone Tomahawk,” or the new release “Spree”), but it sets the stage for a documentary that shares professional wrestling’s playful relationship with the truth; James and Darg’s film can’t help but explore how wrestling and cinema both exist within the same liminal space between fiction and reality, even if it does so in a less probing fashion than Robert Greene’s also wonderful “Fake it So Real.” Arquette is searching for a shred of legitimacy in a world that’s always made him feel like a fraud, and by the end of this lovable, hilarious, and ineffably heartfelt doc it’s almost impossible not to believe in him.
For much of its running time, however, the movie’s most misleading detail threatens to be its title. Not only does it seem like you can kill David Arquette, it also seems like he might die at any moment. The first time we see him, the dude is looking weathered. And not “the wear-and-tear of someone approaching 50” weathered, but “the destructive ravages of climate change” weathered. He’s survived addiction, a heart attack, and the sustained pummeling of his professional identity in a way that suggests a certain indomitable streak, but if this is the shape Arquette is in before he jumps back into the ring… well, it’s hard not to worry that you might be watching the sweetest snuff film ever made. And that fear only grows stronger each time a doctor tells Arquette that he’s putting himself in grave danger.
But despite the film’s preoccupation with its subject’s body (and the various horrors visited upon it along the way), “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” is less concerned with the actor’s physical condition than it is his emotional wellbeing. “I don’t really care about being a champ or anything like that,” Arquette declares at the beginning of the doc. “I care about respect.” Respect and acceptance. “What is wrestling about?” he wonders. “Why do fans love it so much, and why did they get so mad at me?” An overgrown, anxiety-ridden child whose wife bears a striking resemblance to the ring girl he crushed on as a kid, Arquette — we realize — sees himself reflected in the sport of wrestling. In its flamboyance, in its spectacle, and in how seriously it takes its own goofiness. He feels rejected by the one community that seems like it should be able to understand him. Darg and James’ film is so involving and sincere because of how gracefully they detail that dynamic, conflating Arquette with his carnivalesque obsession until the actor’s self-worth is entwined with the credibility of wrestling itself.
It’s true that the average scene in “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” feels like the stuff of a Johnny Drama subplot. The first half of the movie alone finds Arquette getting his taint waxed, going on a dissociative ketamine trip in order to find his demons, and having a heart-to-heart with his Oscar-winning sister Patricia. Later — in one of the single greatest sequences you’ll see on a screen of any kind this year — Arquette pairs up with some Mexican street wrestlers for some incredibly balletic brawls at a Tijuana traffic light (like so much of the movie, it’s sad, beautiful, violent, and ultra-adorable all at once).
But Arquette’s bone-deep respect for wrestling always shines through, and many of the film’s most affecting passages shine a light on the people whose approval he craves; the people whose blood, sweat, and passion Arquette pissed all over when he was awarded the world championship belt just for being famous. The bit where Arquette drops by a backyard wrestling match in the middle of nowhere and gets destroyed by some random kids is so pure and special because he’s right where he belongs. Arquette might be a long way from the glory days of “Never Been Kissed” (aren’t we all), but this feels like the most authentic thing he’s ever done on camera.
There’s so much raw pathos on display in this relentlessly entertaining doc that its affecting final moments — which include a last-minute pivot to honor the memory of Arquette’s late friend, Luke Perry — leave you wishing that Darg and Price had dug even deeper, even if it meant sacrificing a measure of the film’s silliness. To an extent, that’s just what happens in a movie where every supporting character feels like they could shoulder a movie of their own (including Arquette’s wife, his bro-y best friend who he randomly met outside the Super Bowl, and his ultimate nemesis RJ City, a charismatic heel who feels like he should be starring in a Broadway musical about the WCW). And to an extent, that’s the result of a doc so enamored by its subject that it doesn’t always resonate beyond the boundaries of Arquette’s self-worth. Still, it’s undeniably affirming to watch someone risk it all in order to embrace who they really are, even if that’s not who the world said they should want to be. It’s been one hell of a journey, but David Arquette has finally found the role of a lifetime.
“You Cannot Kill David Arquette” will be available on VOD beginning Friday, August 28