“On Cinema at the Cinema” takes to the streets in an ersatz parody about Tim Heidecker’s downward slide from mass-murder to politics.
It’s hard to define exactly what actor/comedian/musician Tim Heidecker does — the deliberate result of a Dead Sea-dry sense of humor that can make even his most committed supporters feel like they’re not always in on the joke — but if anything binds his various projects together it might be a consistent effort to explore the value of absurdity in an increasingly absurd world. You can see it in “The Comedy,” a semi-improvised satire in which Heidecker gave one of the decade’s great performances as a trust fund man-child who gets unmoored between irony and entropy. You can hear it on albums like “Too Dumb for Suicide: Tim Heidecker’s Trump Songs,” in which he mocks our reality TV president in order to grapple with the futility of mocking our reality TV president.
And you can watch it darken and metastasize for hours and hours and hours on end as part of the ever-expanding “On Cinema” universe, which started as one giant subtweet of a movie review podcast before it grew to encompass 11 seasons of a television show, a five-hour fake murder trial, and now a feature-length film in which Heidecker campaigns to become the San Bernardino County District Attorney in order to get revenge on the man who (rightly) tried him for his role in an EDM concert where 18 people vaped themselves to death.
That may not make a ton of sense to anyone who didn’t watch Tim’s Electric Sun Desert Musical Festival go disastrously wrong in season nine of “On Cinema at the Cinema,” but “Mister America” — the new mockumentary about Heidecker’s malicious political campaign — doesn’t really seem to care. The movie is (extremely) fine with being a fans-only affair, but the fact is that Heidecker’s comedy thrives in the liminal space between what’s supposed to be funny and what’s not, and the one thing he can’t afford to do is stop to explain the joke. Besides, we all live at a time when a thin-skinned bully redoubled his efforts to take over the world after a comedian made fun of him at a fancy dinner party, so it’s not like anyone is going to be all that starved for context. “Mister America” might be a much tougher sit for the uninitiated than it is for all the TimHeads out there, but even those who don’t enjoy this half-baked stunt of a movie should be able to appreciate how sardonically it smudges the thin line between freedom and chaos.
Directed by “Nathan for You” vet Eric Notarnicola, whose TV work has elevated “Borat”-style comedy to cringe-worthy new heights, “Mister America” uses both professional actors and random people in a way that helpfully destabilizes the entire project, while (less helpfully) making you wish that Heidecker had just entered the San Bernardino DA race for real. The comedian continues his “On Cinema” performance as an outrageously arrogant version of himself, an ego monster with a Trumpian gift for transmuting ignorance into anger.
It’s equal parts funny and frightening to watch him accost strangers for their signatures, as he runs his campaign with all the social grace of a serial killer. In one scene, Heidecker barges into a family restaurant and asks a tableful of patrons if they’re potential voters (“I just want to know that I’m not wasting my time”). A later moment that feels like a tepid rehash of “The Comedy” finds him walking into a barbershop and lecturing two young men of color about how great their neighborhood was “in the good old days.”
Aside from a climactic rally where it becomes hard to suss fact from fiction, the funniest and/or most pointed stuff in “Mister America” tends to come from people who are part of the charade. Terri Parks is low-key hilarious as useless campaign manager Toni Newman, a former jury member on Heidecker’s murder trial (and the one dissenting vote that prevented him from spending the rest of his life in jail). Don Pecchia gets a few good moments as Heidecker’s nemesis Vincent Rosetti, a totally baffled civil servant who can’t help but insist that everyone in America — even cartoonish asshats who are clearly motivated by personal vendettas — has the right to run for office (even if that means our democracy is always one megalomaniacal idiot away from becoming a circus).
And, of course, it’s only a matter of time before Heidecker’s “On Cinema at the Cinema” co-host Gregg Turkington shows up wearing a promotional hat from the misbegotten Guy Pearce vehicle “The Time Machine.” His scenes sprinkle in some of that classic “On Cinema at the Cinema” flavor, as Turkington provides a little backstory for Heidecker neophytes in between reminding us about his “Ant-Man” cameo, dumpster-diving for an old VHS copy of the Steve Martin/Queen Latifah vehicle “Bringing Down the House,” and bragging that he was one of the first 300 people to ever see Clint Eastwood’s “Sully.”
All of this stuff pulls focus away from the local election, but Heidecker’s name isn’t actually on the ballot anyway. He may have the grievance to become a major political force, but he lacks the money and the fool’s gold charisma that some people are able to buy with it (he campaigns on a promise to end 100 percent of crime in San Bernardino County, but the racism underlying that message is maybe too subtle to excite white voters). It’s amusing that he lives in his hotel war room, and that his grassroots efforts amount to asking local businesses to hang anti-Rosetti signs that read “We have a rat problem,” but the overall inertia of the film’s narrative makes it hard to sustain any real comic momentum from one gag to the next.
On the other hand, “Mister America” is the kind of comedy that can pivot from lethargic to legendary on the turn of a dime (if only for a minute or two); a scene where Heidecker absentmindedly vapes his own toxic product is proof enough of that. And given how normalized this kind of character has become in these dumb times, that part can also be seen as a convenient metaphor for the entire movie. When the world is on fire, why go out of your way to suck up the smoke? When absurdism has become our day-to-day reality, what are absurdists supposed to do?
For Heidecker, one answer seems to be to make documentaries. A genuine attempt would have been preferable to this ersatz parody, but “Mister America” is real enough when it needs to be. One screaming “constituent” yells at our hero as he retreats from a campaign stop gone wrong: “Tim Heidecker is a fucking murderer! You know he killed those kids and he’s going to fucking burn for it!” Cowardly speed-walking away, Heidecker shouts over his shoulder: “You’ll vote for me!”
“Mister America” is now playing in theaters in New York and Los Angeles.