The director/co-author of American Cowslip must be a genius.
Not because of his movie, which is too full of cowslip, but because of his
persuasive powers. Somehow or another he managed to recruit Rip Torn, Val
Kilmer, Diane Ladd, Cloris Leachman, Bruce Dern, Priscilla Barnes and Peter Falk
to appear in his li'l indie movie. That dude missed his calling. He needs to get
out of moviemaking and into sales!
American Cowslip is a surreal black comedy about the final days of an
agoraphobic junkie pedophile - and he's the sympathetic character! Well, he does
profess to love all living things, especially flowers. Well, flowers are maybe
second to underaged girls. The rest of the characters in his life include his maniacal
landlord and neighbor (Torn) who wants to evict him, his too-religious brother
(Kilmer) and a senile priest (Falk) who want to perform an exorcism on him, some
kindly but daft old ladies (Leachman, Ladd) who enable his heroin purchases by
intentionally losing to him at poker, the underaged girl's violent father (Dern)
who threatens to kill him, a stolen donkey who shares his house, a local
prostitute (Barnes) who loves him and claims she actually works nights at a
burger joint, a developmentally-challenged young man who sits in a neighboring
yard all day and tries to solve Rubik's Cube, and the acid-tongued paper boy who
is also willing to be the neighborhood pusher if the price is right.
The film has some highly stylized art direction and cinematography, presenting
the setting entirely in beautiful, bright, over-saturated colors which make the
junkie's filthy house and ragged garden look as pretty and inviting as a family
cartoon come to life. Director Mark David was also the cinematographer, and
demonstrated a lot of talent in the latter assignment, but you have to wonder
why he chose a palette that would make a junkie's life seem to have fairy tale
beauty. The protagonist himself explains the logic behind this when he asks the
underaged object of his affections if she has ever felt love greater than Jesus
was capable of, or if she has ever felt happy and complete, or if she has ever
been in perfect harmony with everyone and
everything in the universe. She answers in the negative and he tells her that he
always feels those things, and that's why he shoots junk. In other words, the
glorious beauty of his litter-strewn and vomit-covered house is the way he sees
and feels it, not the way it appears in objective reality. This also goes a long
way toward explaining all the surreal characters and situations around him. The
camera records a junkie's haze, not objective reality.
Does it all work? No, not really.
I did get a kick out of Rip Torn, who was asked to bring the crazy as a
one-dimensional antagonist, and did so consistently, but I found the film very
difficult to get through, although it maintains a consistently energetic pace.
It's one of those films where the first twenty minutes or so make it clear where
everything must go, and the rest of the running time represents the process of
getting there. Sometimes that can work, because journeys are not necessarily
less interesting than destinations, but not in this case, where the journey
consists of sophomoric writing and juvenile humor, much of it involving
constipation and vomiting. Screenwriter David is far less talented than director
David and editor David, who are in turn not as proficient as cinematographer
David. The film has a solid veteran cast, frenetic energy, and a custom look,
but the jejune script ultimately kills the project.
The film flips even farther out in the final two minutes and incorporates some
magic realism, or maybe I should call it magic surrealism, and a bit of
unexpected sentimentality, thus bringing even more crazy to the table. If
only it had been more of the funny crazy and less of the purely demented kind.
The film tried for amusingly and endearingly quirky, but just ended up being
self-consciously odd. That might have been tolerable, or at least more
tolerable, at 80 minutes of running time, but this nonsense goes on for an
agonizing and repetitive 113 minutes.