It was unlikely that a film nominally about goat testicles would be one of the most innovative, self-critiquing documentaries of this year, but Penny Lane’s smart, funny and deeply sad new film, Nuts!, should take its rightful place alongside other recent structurally subversive docs like The Arbor and Taboo.
Like Errol Morris’ gonzo documentary of sex, brainwashing and the nature of celebrity, Nuts! is another stranger-than-fiction tale that’s constantly annotating its own storytelling. While Taboo occasionally felt like it was overly moderating itself for clarity, Nuts! interrupts the escalating absurdity only when it’s essential—instead allowing the narrative to move at its own frenetically satisfying pace.
Told almost entirely in an animation style that’s the visual combination of Waltz with Bashir and Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, along with a smattering of archival footage and occasional interviews, the film tells the true story of John Romulus Brinkley, an early 20th century doctor. Brinkley became a phenomenon through his unusual fertility remedies, and later, an accidental footnote in the history of public radio.
Brinkley’s fame was a perfect storm of the right time and place. He was an effortlessly charismatic figure working in the minuscule town of Milford, Kansas at a time before there was widespread knowledge of medicine, and he swooped in like a wizard to fix everyone’s problems. His methods were an ideal evangelism tool with their bizarre ingredients and miracle-inducing effects.
He positioned himself as a man of the people, conjuring pathos that would overwhelm any rhetorical argument and attracting followers in droves. And he was an unlikely pioneer on the radio, simultaneously spearheading the introduction of Americana/country strands and medical advice to the masses.
Nuts! is far from a glowing endorsement, bringing in Brinkley’s many acquired enemies over his lifetime. The doctor was under constant fire for his polarizing practices, making him a villain to some of the largest medical groups of the time, and even inspiring laws in his name.
To say more of Brinkley’s story would be a betrayal of its numerous rewards, but suffice to say, Nuts! sprawls in unexpected directions, delving into discussions of the First Amendment, political monopolies and corrupt bureaucracies.
Adapted by first-time writer Thom Stylinski, and more crucially edited by Lane and Stylinski, the film passes the story back and forth between the crisp cut-out animation and the narration with ease and constant wit. The storytelling is irreverent, and Lane’s tone expertly moves between being equally seduced and repelled by Brinkley’s life. Her direction is always aware of the storybook nature, with even parts of the film being connected with interludes of closing an actual book.
Inevitably, with a story that’s filled with so many memorable incidents, there are parts of Nuts! that don’t feel as breathlessly engaging. The film becomes a little overly caught up in the intricacies around the radio station, particularly in the discussion about the logistics of the Brinkley Act. And the final coda of the film is well earned, but it’s just a bit too jarring for a film that otherwise has such a tremendous command of pacing.
But Nuts! is, on the whole, an incredibly entertaining and clever film that understands and constantly sidesteps the easy tropes of the genre. It molds the form for its own needs, and offers an experience that transcends the quirkiness of its subject to be a moving story about legacy, loss and truth.
Director: Penny Lane
Writers: Penny Lane, Thom Stylinski
Starring: Gene Tognacci, Andy Boswell, John Causby, Kelly Mizell, Jeff Pillars, Thom Stylinski
Release Date: June 24, 2016