Review: ‘American Job’

Intended as a deadpan, grimly comic look at the bleakness of a minimum-wage life, "American Job" excessively straightjackets itself dramatically and thematically to push beyond superficial observations. A sort of mock staged version of a Frederick Wiseman documentary, with extended real-time footage of dull jobs being listlessly performed, pic is content to make its one major point without deepening it along the way.

Intended as a deadpan, grimly comic look at the bleakness of a minimum-wage life, “American Job” excessively straightjackets itself dramatically and thematically to push beyond superficial observations. A sort of mock staged version of a Frederick Wiseman documentary, with extended real-time footage of dull jobs being listlessly performed, pic is content to make its one major point without deepening it along the way. Made for $ 14,000, this handcrafted curio will spark some interest at fests, with the college circuit and specialized theatrical dates as further possibilities, but PBS and cable look to be the most congenial destinations.

The soulless, depersonalized, unrewarding nature of most jobs is scarcely a new theme, and producer/director/co-writer/cameraman/editor Chris Smith has put himself out on a limb by choosing to focus on one dull fellow as he makes the rounds of interviews and takes a succession of menial positions, one more depressing than the last.

First, it’s a plastics factory, where Randy (Randy Russell) is required to simply watch all day as a machine turns out an item every 45 seconds. After Randy quits that post, it’s on to cleanup detail at a fast-food restaurant, doing factory inventory on the graveyard shift, performing maid service at a motel and, finally, making phone solicitations for a large financial network.

Without being informed to the contrary beforehand, a viewer would readily believe that this is a documentary, so credibly raw and banal are the workplace conditions and conversations. Smith tries to add slow-burn comic timing to the stifling situations, evoking laughter born of absurdity at numerous points, but it’s not enough to prevent the picture from becoming a bit oppressive and tedious itself.

Set in a nameless Midwestern town devoid of any sense of community, color or culture, the film has numerous limitations. First of all, the verite-like “action,” while well executed and performed by amateur actors, doesn’t entirely hold attention. The deadening nature of repetitive work quickly becomes apparent in the opening sequence, and little in subsequent episodes expands on the point.

Like Wiseman at his best, Smith clearly intends some subversive commentary on the nature of work, life and the structure of society, but pic’s cutting edge simply isn’t sharp enough to sustain a full-length work.

The overriding problem is that the homely Randy emerges as being nearly as boring as his jobs. Film deliberately avoids any psychological probing into his character, but his life is so stripped down and empty as to be unbelievable. He has no friends, no romantic possibilities, no outside interests and seemingly no aspirations. Crucially, there is never even a glimmer of insight, doubt or questioning regarding his lowly position in the cosmos, the slightest recognition that something might lie beyond his random work site and messy apartment. Even a visit to a local strip club doesn’t loosen him up.

Young, impressionable audiences may feel that the film says something profound about the hollowness of the American way of life, but pic’s one-note approach and lack of analysis keep its commentary on an obvious level, despite the sporadic amusement value. Tech credits are basic but appropriate to the undertaking.

American Job

Production

A Bluemark Prods. presentation. Produced, directed by Chris Smith. Screenplay , Randy Russell, Doug Ruschhaupt, Smith.

Crew

Camera (DuArt color, 16mm), Smith; editor, Smith. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (American Spectrum), Jan. 22, 1996. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Randy Scott ... Randy Russell With: Tom Wheeler, Matt Collier, Charlie Smith, Eric Lezotte, Gary Ganakas, Dave O'Meara, Dan Layne, Ed English.
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