There’s something uniquely unsettling about Joel Potrykus’ anti-comedy Ape (screening tonight as the latest screening collaboration between MDFF and The Seventh Art at Camera on Queen Street at 8:00pm). It’s almost as if a Daniel Clowes novel wasn’t so much adapted as it simply fought its way off the page. It’s awkward, unnerving, strange, combative, brash, and never, ever dull.
Trevor Newandyke (Joshua Burge) is a terrible stand up comedian. Full of the necessary self-loathing, rough life experience, and arrogance that one needs to succeed in the joke telling game, Trevor just isn’t particularly good at what he does while constantly bearing an entitled attitude that makes him think he’s the best person at the comedy showcases he constantly gets bumped from. He’s broke, a rival comic essentially stole material that he said he would pay for, and he’s incredibly unmotivated to make himself any better at his job. If he had his way, he’s be rehearsing the same five or six jokes in the mirror over and over again with hopes that one might finally stick while setting a bunch of flash paper on fire as a stress reliever.
Potrykus’s work here is definitely a character study, generally plotless, shapeless, and not in a hurry to get anywhere, but it combines Trevor’s obvious shortcomings with surrealist asides that give the film some semblance of direction. Shot in an almost documentary fashion, Potrykus and Burge (who wisely never tries to make Trevor particularly likeable, despite a few moments of nobility) watch as Trevor flounders throughout his daily life, at one point making a deal with “the devil” that will add an interesting, if somewhat half baked body horror element that comes almost out of nowhere. There’s a man in an ape costume that shows up at various points to give the film a kind of elliptical feel (one that’s strangely and possibly intentionally tied to one of Trevor’s lamest jokes). He tries unsuccessfully to stop a bike robbery. His cable gets cut off and he has to resort to watching old tapes of Jerry Lewis telethons to pass the time.
It’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea since a vested interest in the psychology of performance is almost a prerequisite to having any interest in Trevor’s plight, and that’s compounded by the more out there elements of the film. It’s in that gray area between experimental and indie, and maybe the film would have benefitted more from actually trying to stick to one rather than the other. A final act attempt to add some stakes to the proceedings leads to a climax that’s certainly cathartic, but somewhat unearned. Despite that, Ape is definitely a film that’s built almost entirely upon individual moments, and most of those moments are pretty good. It’s not a particularly great film, but it’s certainly interesting.