*/**** Image B Sound C+ Commentary A-
starring Joe Pantoliano, Jennifer Tilly, Boyd Gaines, Bronson Pinchot
written and directed by Eric Weber
by Alex Jackson Eric Weber's Second Best is not only a bad movie, it's an arrogantly bad movie. It thinks it has a God-given right to be poorly- acted, written, and directed. Though I'm loath to endorse the source, to paraphrase "South Park" creator Trey Parker, I hate bad Hollywood films but I REALLY fucking hate bad independent films. You would have to be far out of the studio system and truly have the courage of your convictions to make a movie as utterly self-absorbed as Second Best. This transparently autobiographical film exposes its author as whiny, slimy, and smug. I have never been so repulsed by the characters in a movie or the people behind it. It must take Weber's psychiatrist every ounce of strength to not drug his client and talk him into feeding pieces of his face to a dog.
Elliot Kelman (Joe Pantoliano) is a New Jersey writer who sells suits by day and by night pens columns about the cult of loserdom: how he and other losers envy those with six-figure incomes and beautiful cars, wives, and mistresses. Because Eliot is a "loser," this literature is self-published, and he hires college students and high school drop outs to distribute it under windshield wipers and on grocery store bulletin boards. Elliot was once a publishing executive who was fired at around the same time his wife left him for their architect. He now surrounds himself with men he thinks are even bigger "losers" than he is, and every week they gather together to listen to his latest column. One day, out of the blue, Elliot hears from an old college friend, Richard (Boyd Gaines), who's now a big-time movie producer. He's coming up to Jersey to discuss the possibility of producing one of Elliot's screenplays. It appears that Elliot is finally going to leave loserdom behind--but does he have the guts to take the exit?
How bad does a movie have to be to make Todd Solondz's Fear, Anxiety & Depression look good? I'm positive that Elliot is a surrogate for Weber. A perusal of his filmography reveals that Weber's directorial debut was some movie you've never heard of called Suits; before that, his big thing was writing the novel that served as the basis for Michael "Logan's Run" Anderson's 1986 sex comedy Separate Vacations. I've learned from his audio commentary for Second Best that he's worked in advertising for thirty years, though it's evident that he has tried and failed to break into the film world. But where the frankly unattractive Solondz would cast himself in the lead of Fear, Anxiety & Depression and would, throughout the rest of his films, cast actors with features similar to his own, Weber's surrogate is the confident non-loser Joe Pantoliano. There is a self-assured hip quality to a lot of the dialogue and the patented Joey Pants delivery that works to neutralize the desperation of the character. Also, this cult of loserdom acquires a large following in Elliot's native New Jersey, transforming him into some sort of underground celebrity, which indulges Weber's feelings of self-pity and his delusions of grandeur simultaneously. Solondz's losers, by contrast, really are losers: they were born losers and they are going to die losers and that's that. Solondz doesn't hide behind this "cult of loserdom" bullshit, he nakedly feeds himself to the wolves.
What particularly bugs the ever-loving shit out of me about Elliot's idea of loserdom is that it's measured purely in terms of material gain. The nature of your career is irrelevant as long as you can pull six figures and get beautiful women. The Solondz character in Fear, Anxiety & Depression, Ira, may hate being penniless and reject the woman he has for one he can't obtain, but his focal desire is to be a serious playwright. He idolizes Samuel Beckett and is deluded enough to write him letters requesting they collaborate on a project. His friends observe that his big play, titled "Despair", is ripped-off from a Vladimir Nabokov novel. It's savaged by the critics and flops miserably. That's brutal. Through writing, Ira seeks some kind of transcendence: if he can become a great playwright, he understands that he can be something more than human. His failure, then, is a deeply spiritual one, on a par with Ingmar Bergman's unanswered cry in the dark. I don't know what to say to Elliot when he complains about having to get up at 3:30 in the morning to be the second to register a 4:18 tee-time at the municipal golf course. Get a fucking life?
I have never seen anything quite like Second Best. Only the most amateur of film critics would deem that an inherently good thing. Second Best is unique simply because Weber doesn't particularly like the movies. There is no model by which to judge or interpret this film aesthetically, because Weber hasn't put forth the effort to find one. He just doesn't care; he's not a serious artist and hasn't made a film because he has something to say, but because he doesn't know anything else. I can tell you now that Eric Weber will never "sell out." "Selling out" requires two things that Weber will probably never have: a buyer and ideals to betray.
A lot of what's unusual about the film--a lot of which makes it borderline interesting--is its incompetence. Weber is not doing things differently, he's doing them wrong. Elliot and Richard get into a fisticuffs and Weber uses blurry slow-motion as Elliot lands the crucial punch. The alleged payoff comes when we see in the next scene that Elliot didn't hit Richard, but instead hit and broke the nose of one of his friends. Meantime, the testimonials from other "losers" are not adequately folded into the storyline. They often feel abrupt and jagged, with no thematic relationship to the material preceding or following them. Whenever people read his diatribes, we hear their thoughts in voiceover--which is tacky enough, but Weber goes so far as to include a cheap scene where a firefighter stumbles over the word "masochist" before deciding on "maso-Christ." Weber gets a lot of the little stuff wrong. I hated a sequence in which Elliot putts a pine cone into his apartment and we get a quick shot of it hurdling past a Kit Kat wall clock. The timing is off, it doesn't click or flow and the very presence of the Kit Kat clock is self-consciously kitschy. Weber also gives Gaines the line, "Elliot thinks he's better than me. He holds women in his arms and I hold them by their ears." That's only the worst of a lot of unnatural, forcibly tasteless zingers.
My least favourite sequence in the movie is a sex scene between Elliot and a trashy crossing guard played by Pantoliano's Bound co-star Jennifer Tilly. Weber isolates the two of them in close-up and shakes the camera, never giving us a wide shot of their bodies together. On one level this is cheap, on-the-make filmmaking by a director who doesn't care much about his craft. On another level, Weber seems to want to neutralize any hint of eroticism in the sex act, to deglamourize and demystify it, in effect ensuring that we know that even if he is making love to Jennifer Tilly, this is still "second best" sex. THE VILLAGE VOICE's Akiva Gottlieb puts it more succinctly than I ever could in describing Second Best as "an ugly, amateurish film that champions mediocrity in a meta-attempt to justify its own ineptitude." You can't help but think that Weber's extreme ineptness is an externalization of his deeply masochistic feelings of worthlessness.
Although TH!NKFilm's DVD treatment of Second Best is hardly embarrassing, you know what they say: you can't polish a turd. While the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is consistently oversaturated and occasionally blurry, altogether it's pretty clean and doesn't show any overt signs of infidelity to the DV master. Similarly adequate, the Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio nevertheless suffers from a diffuse quality that can leave dialogue sounding mumbled. I have to admit that I was dreading listening to the accompanying feature-length commentary from Weber and Pantoliano, but the experience was largely a positive one as it confirmed a lot of my worst suspicions regarding Weber. Weber says that although he wrote Elliot as Jewish, he always pictured an Italian like "De Niro or Pacino" in the role. The best they could afford on this budget, he admitted, was Joe Pantoliano. Nice, considering that Pantoliano was the one responsible for getting this mess made. Pantoliano is accommodating before gradually moving onto the offensive, indicating that the idea of Elliot's wife dumping him for the architect simply because the architect is more successful is misogynistic on Weber's part. At one point he asks Weber, regarding a hospital scene swathed in yellow, "Why does this look like shit?" "I don't know," Weber replies.
Pantoliano seems to know a lot more about filmmaking than Weber does and takes credit for relocating several dialogue scenes that were originally set in cars to out in the open because doing so is more visually interesting, natural for the actors, and affordable, since car rigs are expensive to set up. Joey, bubby, why are you palling around this asshole just to play a lead role? Next time you get the urge, I suggest you write and direct your own starring vehicle. I also love how, when Sideways (to which this film was often compared) comes up in conversation, Weber says enviously, "If we could only have their sales," and how he talks about how he wishes somebody would "discover him" so he wouldn't have to produce his own movies. Good grief! Trailers for Second Best, Murderball, Dallas 362, and The Aristocrats round out the disc. I couldn't find the advertised still gallery, on the off chance you considered that a selling point. Originally published: May 16, 2006.