Eric Notarnicola’s Mister America is the theatrical culmination (for now) of project called On Cinema, which started as a podcast in 2011 and has morphed and expanded to include a web series, multiple television series and a number of live events. In On Cinema, Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington star as movie critics named Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington. There’s a massive, labyrinthine history that’s unfolded over the last eight years but the upshot is that the two leads hate each other.
Mister America takes the form of a documentary following Tim as he runs for district attorney of San Bernardino County, a decision at which he arrived after successfully defending himself in court against nineteen counts of murder, a charge stemming from his knowingly giving a group of teens tainted vape juice. Like I said, it’s a complicated history. But Mister America does a good job of giving you the information you need. I only knew On Cinema by reputation and had no trouble following the plot. Since Heidecker and Turkington have given their characters their actual names and since Heidecker really is collecting signatures from San Bernardino residents to get on the ballot, the only potentially confusing part is finding the line between performance art comedy and straightforward documentary. Fortunately, that’s also the fun part.
That’s not to say there aren’t funny jokes in Mister America. It’s just that they’re played so straight and so dry that they’re unlikely to elicit guffaws. Still, it’s undeniably hilarious when Tim asks local restaurants to post his campaign signs, which read simply, “We have a rat problem,” in their windows or when Gregg makes an unsolicited loan of a VHS copy of The Shaggy D.A. to the fake documentary filmmakers and then insists he needs it back by Monday.
Tim’s quixotic run is the movie’s engine and thus he dominates the screentime, which is exactly what his egotistical character would want anyway. It’s perhaps no coincidence that this persona was created in 2011, around the time of Donald Trump’s first presidential run. Tim’s pathological narcissism and his compulsion to take down those he views as his opponents, which is almost everyone, make Mister America a satire of our current president. He even uses the same phrases, like “turned out to be,” as President Trump.
That phrase, of course, is common enough to be a coincidence. In fact, one of the most impressive traits of Mister America is that, despite the outlandish details like the murder trial that exist in the periphery, nothing about the characters is more than a few degrees away from pure believability. Turkington plays a kind of obsessive but superficial, populist movie dork that will likely be recognizable to the kind of cinephiles who read this website. Tim’s dogged dependence on an Apple Watch he doesn’t quite know how to use is a fully relatable bit of middle age desperation. Add in newcomer to the On Cinema universe Terri Parks as Tim’s loyal campaign manager Toni and Mister America includes three of the best performances I’ve seen in a movie this year.
Parks’ contributions and her chemistry with Heidecker are what finally elevate Mister America above committed in-joke or dry satire. True to form, Heidecker, Turkington and Notarnicola never make a spectacle of Tim and Toni’s increasingly codependent relationship. They’re both alcoholics and they’re both incompetent but there’s something undeniably sweet about their support for one another. When the unrelentingly petty and self-interested Tim says to the camera crew, “It’s nobody’s fault” about a major gaffe that is clearly Toni’s fault, his reflexive protectiveness of her is more than a little touching. Mister America succeeds in unexpected ways by centering humanity and heart amidst the sarcasm and misanthropy.