Moriarty Fools Around With Gurland & Botko's MAIL ORDER WIFE!!
Published at: Oct. 15, 2008, 2:34 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
It’s a big weekend for this very tiny film. It’s playing in New York and LA (at the Angelika Film Center and the Sunset 5, respectively), and its expansion depends largely on how well it performs. So grab the kids and the grandparents and go... bask in the wholesome glow of MAIL ORDER WIFE... then tell your friends just how scarred and traumatized you were.
You see, Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland are very dangerous men. I’ve known this for quite a while, but their new film reinforces this idea quite persuasively.
Before the era of JACKASS and PUNK’D and Bam Margera doing whatever the fuck he wants to and Tom Green fellating cow udders, Botko and Gurland were making short films that are still hard to believe when you see them. Botko’s “Dessertumentary” series blew my mind, one of the most openly hostile comic exercises I’ve ever seen. Basically, he had a ton of unresolved aggression towards his family and decided to work it out on film. In the film FRUIT CAKE, he bakes a fruit cake for his family, but he has an assortment of homeless people spit in the batter before he cooks it. In subsequent films like BAKED ALASKA, CHEESECAKE, and GRAHAM CRACKER CREAM PIE, he continues to make desserts filled with vile substances including his own semen... desserts that he ends each film by serving to his family members so he can film them while they’re eating. The short films are both hilarious and terrifying. Right around the same time, Gurland made a feature documentary called FRAT HOUSE, a controversial feature he co-directed with Todd (OLD SCHOOL) Phillips. It’s ferociously entertaining, and it made quite a stir at the 1998 Sundance Festival, partly because of it’s harrowing and wickedly funny look at college fraternity hazing rituals, and partly because of accusations that the film was more fiction than fact.
Botko and Gurland met at NYU Film School, but it wasn’t until after they’d both gone away and made films on their own, until after the “Dessertumentary” films and FRAT SCHOOL, that they finally worked together. Their films GRAMAGLIA, JULIE (IS A CUNT), and BROKEN CONDOM all continued to push the boundaries of both documentary and comedy. Watching them, it’s impossible to tell what’s real and what’s not. More than anything, all you can do is marvel at the gleeful cruelty of it all. In the press notes, he describes a film I haven’t seen, BROKEN CONDOM, in which Gurland browbeats his real pregnant wife, accusing her of manipulating him into having a child. The highlight of the film is evidently the moment where Gurland’s wife, hooked up to a polygraph, ends up breaking down in tears. Twisted, evil genius.
Looking at this track record, MAIL ORDER WIFE makes perfect sense. It looks like a documentary, and Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko both show up as themselves, filmmakers involved in the making of a documentary film, but this is carefully scripted and perfectly cast, comedy so dark you could almost call it horror. The film opens with Adrian Martin, an overweight doorman from Queens, talking about how he doesn’t want to be alone. The actor, Adrian Martinez, has done a fair amount of work, in pretty cool films like IN AMERICA and PIECES OF APRIL and this year’s THE INTERPRETER. None of those other roles are as memorable as his work here, though. Adrian is a pretty unflattering role. He goes about the business of getting his mail order wife with minimal fuss, like he’s ordering furniture from Ikea. When this young woman from Burma shows up at the airport, Andrew asks him if all of his expectations have been met. “I expected she’d be here. She’s here. My expectations were met,” he replies. The girl’s name is Lichi (Eugenia Yuan), and she speaks no English at first. She can barely make contact with anyone. He takes her home and puts her to work, showing her how to scrub his toilets, which way he likes the toilet paper, and how much ketchup she needs to put in the chili. The important stuff. And Gurland and Botko observe at a distance. At first. Gradually, though, it becomes harder to remain impassive. Adrian’s a quiet sort of monster, thrilled to have this little captive he can push around. Andrew steps in and says something after one memorably awful scene in which Lichi, talking to her translator, realizes in horror that Adrian has brought her to see a doctor so that he can have her sterilized.
Like I said... dark.
Adrian finally pulls the plug on the process, saying he doesn’t want to be in a movie anymore. He and Lichi vanish, and there’s nothing Andrew can really do about it. Then six weeks later, Lichi shows up at his place, scared, freaked out, with a videotape. Andrew and the translator (Deborah Teng, very good in a very subtle role) watch, disturbed at Adrian’s homemade torture porn starring Lichi, finally having to turn it off because they can’t handle what they’re seeing. Andrew tells Lichi to stay with him, that she’ll be safe. He’ll help her find work. He’ll help her with her immigration status. He’ll take care of her.
As Andrew’s relationship with Lichi becomes more complicated, you can’t help but ask the question: is Andrew’s attraction to Lichi any more normal or healthy than Adrian’s? Or is he objectifying Lichi in a whole different way? The way the first half of the film is shot, it’s obvious that he’s falling in love with her as the subject of the film. He shoots Lichi with the most sympathetic eye you can imagine, and I would argue that there’s a sort of radical feminine voice in this film. Eugenia Yuan is phenomenal as Lichi. Her evolution from shy Burmese girl stepping off of the airplane to the woman she’s become by the time Huck, Huck’s father, Adrian, Andrew, and Lichi all end up in a motel room in Miami is pretty remarkable, and realistic at every single turn. There’s a scene in the middle of the film where she is introducing the viewer to every pig in her formidable collection of knick-knack pigs that starts cute, plays Christopher-Guest-BEST-IN-SHOW-funny for a few minutes, then turns honest and dark and gaspingly ugly within moments. There’s fearlessness in the work she does.
Andrew Gurland is very good here, very funny. This reminds me of REAL LIFE, Albert Brooks’s first film. It’s that sort of funny, that sort of ugly. Gurland wants to be the hero of the documentary, and you see him trying his best to do the right thing and be a good guy, but he gets so emotionally fucked up by the whole thing that he fails to pretty spectacular effect. And Adrian just keeps getting creepier as the film progresses, excellent work by Martinez that should earn him a lot of new fans. Roland Uruci does strong work also as the broker who sets up the marriage in the first place, and Gurland’s mother shows up as herself in a great appearance.
More than anything, MAIL ORDER WIFE is a great film about the way people want to believe that they don’t take advantage of other people, but they do, and they almost can’t help doing it. Great lasting comedy frequently uncovers our most tender spots, hitting us where we live. MAIL ORDER WIFE does just that. By refusing to answer certain questions and by refusing to make anyone in the film Hollywood-conventional-good-or-evil, it really allows room for you to have your own reaction to it. I think Gurland and Botko would be just as happy if this film causes you to have an emotional breakdown, recoiling from it, as they will be if you laugh. Like I said at the start of this piece, this film is getting a very small release, but there’s a lot here to chew on. I have a feeling this one’s going to grow and grow and grow, one of those viral buzz things where people pass their tape or their DVD to someone else saying, “You’ve just gotta see it for yourself.” I think it’s a huge step up for Gurland and Botko, and hats off to Doug Liman and Nina Yang and Avram Ludwig and all the other producers for getting this one into theaters. It’s nervy material, and it’s a real gem, one I hope people will make the effort to track down.
I’ve gotta run take care of some stuff, but I’ll be back this weekend with my new DVD SHELF, where I’ve got coverage of my trip to Pixar, a few new recurring features being introduced, details on the Valentines Day contest winners, and a fistful of reviews. Until then...