Posted on Friday, July 3rd, 2009 by Hunter Stephenson
Thirty minutes into Visioneers—a high concept indie dramedy that is, well, brand new to the public—I was consumed by the thought that I, most likely, will never see the movie for sale in a really choice record store. (Don’t worry, this movie review will not serve as a wistful rant on the music industry courtesy of a wannabe Nick Hornby or Chuck Klosterman.) The realization got me down for a half-a-second. Nevertheless, calling Visioneers a “prized would-be staple of the ‘choice record store movie genre’” is a tidy complement that sums up how I feel about it.
In the mid/late ‘90s and early ‘00s, one could find a softly-curated section of DVDs in many independent record stores. Browsing the small selection was a welcome, habitual cool-down after hours spent listening to and considering albums. Generally, the selection amounted to: concert films like Ziggy Stardust, The Show, and Bill Hicks Live. Drug movies like Easy Rider and Neco z Alenky. Godzillas. Tromas. “OG”-flicks like New Jack City and Fresh. Usually a movie starring Natasha Lyonne that wasn’t American Pie. Docs like Grey Gardens and The Corporation. And odd movies starring great comedians like The Magic Christian and The Razor’s Edge. Right, Visioneers would be bunched in with those two.
Of course, “cult movies” is a broad umbrella term for these films, then and especially now, but their location under a roof housing infinite great music birthed the silent notion that the works belonged to a cinematic family. The odd symbiotic relationship is perhaps why the DVDs were rarely purchased; another reason is that, while the DVDs were new, the hands of countless gross nerds, junkies, and patchouli weirdos had flipped them over in states of blank studiousness and after many months of this they felt second-hand. Yet another reason is that most of the diehard culture addicts were shopping for music and…had already seen the majority of these films multiple times.
Visioneers, starring newly minted comedy star, Zach Galifianakis in his Beard Era, is (fortunately?) being released a few years too late to join these illustrious and random racks. But the film contains the familiar equation of two shots artsy tedium, one shot intelligence, and one shot white-people-in-existential-breakdown, that will parlay longevity and affable cred amongst a cross-over viewership that now reserves hushed adulation for Synecdoche, New York. (Eeek. I’m one of those people.) In other words, if anything in this paragraph makes sense, go seek out Visioneers and fucking do not go watch Away We Go. (A final call for violent death to aging-hipster romance movies marketed with quixotic, borderline pedophiliac doodling.)
Directed and written by newcomers, the brothers Jared Drake and Brandon Drake, respectively, Visioneers is another hearty nomination alongside Mike Judge’s Office Space and the Ricky Gervais revolution, for “Man vs. Office Culture” to become an addendum to the universally accepted “Five Examples of Conflict.” Set in a pseudo-future that for all intents and purposes (and budget restrictions) could be present day, Galifianakis stars as a well-paid office grunt, cunt, or “Level Three Tunt” whose name, George Washington Winsterhammerman, seems destined to send him off a cliff of 30something eluded fulfillment.
Winsterhammerman is gainfully employed at a shady monolith called The Jeffers Corporation, which we find out is the largest and most successful corporation in the history of mankind. It earns this superlative by piping in the benefits of propagandized group-think over intercoms all day long. The company-identity-is-your own message is presented on posters, pajamas, the works. In-office ticker-tapes reading, “There are 1199 minutes of productivity remaining before the weekend,” seem placed in the film as if beckoning for a comparison to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. And in an omnipresent gag that screams indie comedy but compliments Galifianakis’s now signature boiler room frustration, the logo of the Jeffers Corporation is an architectural middle finger; the accepted greeting amongst its staff is literally the middle finger (the serious version, with no extended thumb).
The movie’s office setting is so minimal—a handful of desks, gray walls—that it would feel more at peace on the stage, and much of the film would work—and in intimate cases, much better—as an off-Broadway play. But knowing that Galifianakis just starred in The Hangover, a film that will make at least $300 million theatrically worldwide, makes the starkly indie production design feel more welcome and funnier. Possibly even more memorable. Homegrown at a time when American indies attempt to sneak vines into the studio system pot before they’re made. In the film, office life has sucked all external notions of individualism away and left Jeffers Company employees stricken with nervous tics and muffled huffs. Indeed, we find out that employees are literally exploding from complicit duress. Moreover, people around the nation are exploding due to the same mass-influence of security over free thought.
The notion of overextended office-dread causing desk-parked men and women to explode is a funny concept. However, I do wish the threat of human explosions was conveyed better and utilized for some of its testier, freakier implications a la Scanners. As presented here, the threat is an unveiled metaphor for a premature heart attack and for the all-consuming, post-20something fear of death itself.
As you might have guessed, Winsterhammerman teeters on the brink—he’s having vivid, feverish, colonial dreams related to his surname that are reminiscent of VBS’s Drunk History—and he hilariously frets through doctor examinations and homoerotic jock physicals. Unlike a premature Larry David on the first seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Winsterhammerman is perpetually troubled and discontent with his home life, sex life, and marriage. His wife, played by Judy Greer (Elizabethtown), is a self-absorbed vacuum living out a repressed day-to-day New Age prescription, one filled with self-help books and yoga-ish meditation. Sex is predictably treated as, “Want to give it a try,” and it’s funny watching Galifianakis react to the mundane request by cuddling up to himself and staring at the wall doom-eyed. He’s like a bear cub that can’t decide if disappearing is desirable or fucking terrifying, man.
You can tell that Galifianakis digs the material and the film’s message, and during the few times when I was bored, his interest kept me interested. Of course, part of me just wanted to see his character lose another golf club to the sky or shatter more decorative glass in his kitchen for sickened amusement. In one scene, Galifianakis acts his heart out in a nocturnal stampede-as-nervous breakdown that will make John Belushi‘s skull grin. One hopes that, as an actor, subversive performer, and admirable male, he never loses touch with the crazy in the years forthcoming.
I’m always interested to see new and young filmmakers debut with movies that work as deliberate going-for-it breaks against the plundered, dark world of corporate offices and cubicles. It’s a cinematic oath that veers upon new tradition. With Visioneers, the Drake Brothers are invested in seeing Winsterhammerman find what he needs in life, and it involves little trial and much tribulation. Money is not really a factor, which will earn a few eye rolls given the current climate of overdraft fees. Mine rolled when I first saw the character’s scenic Washington State crib and boat. But in the end, the Drakes roll out the character’s life path before us like a clean-cut epiphany; and usually IRL—well, at least ideally—that’s the way major life changes go down. Unfortunately, a sappy ending moderately undermines the message of individualism as well as the reality we all experience outside the screen. But witnessing Galifianakis kick the total shit out of our solar system in the film? As we lose touch with albums, movies, and life’s worth as tangible objects for the picking, it doesn’t get much more real than that.
/Film Rating: 7.0 out of 10
Indie Factoid: The film’s composer, Tim Delaughter, formerly belonged to the cult band Tripping Daisy, which released an album famously titled I am an Elastic Firecracker, which, in my mind, could be an alternate title to Visioneers.
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at h.attila[at]gmail.com and on Twitter.