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CRACKING UP (1994).

CRACKING UP (1994). In the earliest days of this magazine, I reviewed the improvised dementia of director Matt Mitler's short film DICK AND JANE DROP ACID AND DIE (1991), but it was only recently that I finally had an opportunity to check out Mitler's pitch-black feature debut -- a voyage back to a time when local filmmakers were cranking out amazingly weird and very personal efforts. After winning a Special Jury Prize at the 1995 New York Underground Film Festival, CRACKING UP played briefly at the Anthology Film Archives in 1998, then pretty much vanished. Grubby little downtown improv-comedy venues were all the rage during the 1990s, and this film charts the spectacularly-erratic career trajectory of part-time-comedian/full-time-asshole Danny Gold (Mitler), who kicks off the proceedings with a hilariously off-kilter skit that begins as ON THE WATERFRONT's iconic backseat scene between Brando and Steiger, but with the two characters slowly regressing into Pee-Wee Herman and Curly Howard. Suddenly finding himself on the cusp of long-desired stardom, success-driven Danny signs with an agent, callously ditches his old buddies, allows his untethered ego to run wild, and becomes an even more massive, insensitive jerk-off. Danny doesn't suffer fools gladly and he encounters plenty of clueless entertainment industry execs on his way up (and down), with his only glimmer of sanity coming from a chiropractor (Carolyn McDermott) who inexplicably falls for his schtick. But even romance can't quash Danny's manic, self-destructive behavior. Soon he's getting high in a crackhouse (while doing a Sammy Davis, Jr. impression), screwing up a day-player gig on a network TV-series and sabotaging a crucial "Comedy Hoo Haa" audition. It's never wise to insult potential bosses; that is, unless you don't mind washing dishes for a living and eventually going batshit crazy. Equipped with a radical new haircut, Danny's comeback will be memorable. Unfortunately, he can only do it once... Mitler rips loose with a brilliantly abrasive performance -- he's rude, needy, volatile, and frighteningly believable -- along with future MADtv cast-member Debra Wilson doing an on-stage poetry/dance piece and sharing blow with Gold, Camryn Manheim as a "big nurse" attending to hyperactive Danny during a hospital stay, Chuck Montgomery is rockabilly emcee Lucky Jackson, plus that's cartoonist Robert Sikoryak cameoing as an angry cheerleader. By NYC underground standards, the 95-minute film is a veritable epic, loaded with terrific footage of the city (from performing for Washington Square crowds, to dancing about the old homeless encampment near the Manhattan Bridge) and dingy performance spaces. It's a raw, funny, fascinatingly caustic portrait of the unchecked id and fame's dark underbelly.

© 2014 by Steven Puchalski.