Hits, from comedian-actor-turned director David Cross is a frustrating film whose flaws infuriate in the moment but keep you thinking about it for days afterward. It’s a worthy piece of work simply by leaving no middle ground for the indifferent, even though Cross’ handling of the story leaves him straddling the fence in the end.
Katelyn (Meredith Hagner) is a dim-bulb brat who dreams of dating Ryan Gosling and a collaboration with Kayne. Never mind that she can’t sing a note, all she needs is $300 to record a tone-deaf demo of ‘Brave’ by ‘the artist’ Sara Bareilles to get her on The Voice and out of the working-class town that’s slowly suffocating her.
Much to her surprise it’s her Dad, municipal worker Dave Stuben (Veep’s Matt Walsh), who finds fame before she does, becoming a YouTube Howard Beale when a hipster think tank turns phone footage of his tirades at City Hall into a ridiculous viral video likening Dave’s quest of getting the potholes in his road fixed to the embattled pursuit for American liberties of Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Such are the absurdities of Katelyn’s unjust world, who as far as she’s concerned has more talent in her little finger than anyone in town, even if when she uses the expression to vent her frustrations she gets it completely wrong.
Along with the media, competing hipster advocate groups converge on the town, each rallying behind Dave to build their trust-funded brands. With their copycat tashes n’ tats, they’re just as trashy as the people they consider themselves superior to, conceitedly politicised by privilege.
Cross’ expression of the malignant white trash insta-celeb culture of the US and how shameless they are to get famous is as angry and pissed off as the agitprop shock jocks on the radio who inspire Dave’s rants. So angry in fact, that Cross has crafted a comedy without jokes, his desire to preach the truth of what he’s observed in society, oscillating between self-applause and character humiliation, rarely finding the laughs in the middle. There are plenty of shrewd jokes and instances of pretty sharp writing, but Cross pushes his contemporary pressure points so hard it’s harder still to respond to attempts at humour. His hipsters in particular are so exaggeratedly caricatured, (dressed like Timmy Mallet and arguing about soy milk) that I initially watched those characters in growing amazement and eventually deep resentment.
Not biting enough to work as a trenchant satire or funny enough to work as a twisted comedy, Cross does manage to say something indirectly interesting about the weirdness of proximity to power. In this way, the film is not so much about Dave being thrust into the national spotlight or his daughter standing just outside it, but the people three steps behind him who put him there, magnified by association and leaching off his new found fame for their own ends. The dark side of the human ladder to celebrity and the melancholy of the misguided comes across in Zoe Keating’s score (from previously released material) saving the film from its more absurdist tendencies, the same way Heather McIntosh’s music did for Craig Zobel’s Compliance.
Operating in the way they do, the stories of Dave, his daughter and the hipster think tank are three distinct and varyingly choleric character investigations; a misguided exercise in narrative connectivity that goes through so many tonal sensibilities, you’re always one step removed emotionally. The only time it truly lands a punch is its fiendishly bad taste, take-no-prisoners ending, that’s as messed up as anything from Bobcat Goldthwait.
Cross’ conclusion sends us out with the feeling that the American dream is still dying every day, along with the population’s brain cells. A passionate polemic with a senseless lack of feeling, is it a brilliant analysis of shallow people or just shallow? Days later, I’m not sure I have the answer, but I’m still thinking on it.
Watch my interview with director David Cross here.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on April 27, 2014