15 August 2013 | bob the moo
Enjoy the characters for sure, but this film never actually asks the questions that it uses as a handy framework for this parade of oddballs
I've been catching up with some Louis Theroux films recently and this film was one which generally seemed less appealing to me. The trailers had made it look an average affair and a lot of the papers of the time seemed to ignore it in the way they didn't with some of his other films. Theroux's style is to act as a naïve innocent in order to allow colorful characters relax and just be themselves. Mostly this style works for him when he has a subject he is trying to draw out, but in some cases this simply isn't enough unless he is just trying to use these colorful characters in the same way as reality television would do. He proposes this is not the case so I go with him on this.
Here he appears to be looking at the issue of animal's living in captivity in Middle America (the one politicians call "real" America because to say "crazy" would lose them votes) but in many ways his film fails at this. To start with what it does well, Theroux does get his colorful subjects and he does get some nuggets from them in terms of blissful ignorance. We have all types of crazy here – happily mostly well-meaning but still very odd people. We start with what appears to be a semi-proper park, move through a guy who I will probably next see in a sad news story about his death and ultimately end with a woman who speaks of the love of her caged chimps but is very, very nervous around them – probably since one of them famously took someone's face off in a vicious attack. The film allows us to see these colorful people and their animals while Theroux talks to them. Although he asks the obvious questions, he never seems to be doing it to get an answer so much as he does to get a reaction. In some cases he gets some great unintentionally funny lines back, in others he gets annoyance. However he never convinces that he is interested in the animals and the answers to the questions he asks.
I saw this because, although we hear about a PETA film, we never push the subjects on this issue, nor does the film give any time at all to any other viewpoint. This lack of a real journey highlights that we are in "Weird Weekends freak showery" territory. This territory has a place and can be good – but it works best when it is presented for what it is, not dressed up in a disingenuous documentary goal. Theroux concludes the documentary with a thoughtful question about "on one hand this, but on the other that" but this annoyed me as the film could so easily have presented the other side – even briefly – but instead it focuses on the characters. To be fair, for once Theroux's "nervous innocent" act really does come off as genuine and I did enjoy seeing how (rightly) nervous he was around a lot of these animals.
Stay for the characters and Theroux in good form, but just put out of your mind any idea that this is a documentary on the subject, or that it really wants to examine the questions that it asks – it doesn't, but it is still quite enjoyable as a character parade.