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Hits (2014 Sundance review)

January 23, 2014  |  10:43am
<i>Hits</i> (2014 Sundance review)

A mocking satire that goes off the rails, Hits is writer-director David Cross’s comedic takedown of our fame-chasing culture. Unfortunately, some clever ideas are set against a progressively more unbelievable story and a simplistic, tired commentary. You may end up agreeing with many of Cross’s points, yet still left cold by the ways in which he makes them.

Cross, co-creator of the beloved sketch series, Mr. Show, has made his name by brilliantly eviscerating sacred cows through absurdist, sometimes outrageous humor. Heaven knows there’s plenty of ripe material to work from in his screenplay for Hits. In a nowhere New York small town, the pretty, vacuous Katelyn Stuben (Meredith Hagner) believes she’s one good demo away from being discovered on The Voice. Of course, she’s completely misguided—her singing is far from stellar—and yet she’s probably not the most deluded member of her family. That honor goes to her dad Dave (Matt Walsh), who’s the sort of angry, slightly unhinged local man who goes to city council meetings to loudly equate the failure to fill a pothole with the end of American democracy as we know it.

But in the tradition of the characters from Network or Bamboozled, Dave is about ready to have his 15 minutes for the most unlikely of reasons. A video of his angry tirades hits YouTube, attracting the attention of a liberal Brooklyn collective that calls itself Think Tank. The group’s leader, Donovan (James Adomian), wants to champion Dave’s plight as emblematic of the struggles of the common man, and so Think Tank helps this nut job go viral, turning him into a media sensation. As you might imagine, none of this goes over well with Katelyn, whose only dream is to be famous and who gets irritated that all these swarming TV news crews seem disinterested in her.

In the world of Hits, celebrity is something that elevates some, destroys others and fascinates everyone. A white teen dork (Jake Cherry) who wants to be discovered as a rapper gets ruined when a video of him getting hit in the nuts blows up online. A city council president (Amy Carlson) decides she’d better get a manicure after she learns that CNN will be covering Dave’s next appearance at a council meeting. As Cross tells it, not inaccurately, too many of America’s citizens are either trying to get famous or consumed with watching other folks try to get famous on YouTube or reality television. Hits is best in its simpler, offhand observations about media obsession—in its recognition of how people put their hopes in outward signs of approval in order to quiet their personal insecurities.

But where Hits runs aground is in its narrative spine that’s meant to tie together all its satirical targets. As funny as Cross’s spoofing of Brooklyn hipster culture is—Adomian is perfection at portraying Donovan’s irritatingly twee, ultra-sensitive preciousness—it’s a clever bit that doesn’t evolve beyond sketch length. Much of Hits is like this: Cross comes up with good ideas, but he can’t figure out what to do with them. For example, Katelyn could be a fun construction, but her odyssey to get money for her demo bogs down in tame commentary about sex tapes and reality-TV fanaticism. Too often, Cross seems to be railing against stuff that annoys all of us, but not doing so in a manner that’s particularly sharp or consistent.

As for the central storyline—Dave’s surprising, meteoric rise—Cross has created a scenario that’s hard to buy. Of course, Hits is supposed to be a satire, which leaves plenty of room for exaggeration for comedic effect, but the movie would cut deeper if one could believe that a guy like Dave actually could become a cause célèbre simply for being slightly annoying at a city council meeting. No doubt we live in a society where the trivial is celebrated, but it has to be entertaining or humiliating enough to capture the public imagination. Dave isn’t that, and for Cross to hang so much of his satire on such a thin conceit brings down the whole film. In keeping with Cross’s sketch-show background, Hits is sharp and smart for three or four minutes at a time. But the film’s bite-sized humor doesn’t sink its teeth deeply enough into its plump target.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

Director: David Cross
Writer: David Cross
Starring: Meredith Hagner, Matt Walsh, James Adomian, Jake Cherry, Derek Waters, Wyatt Cenac
Release Date: Screening in the Premieres section at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

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