An outlandish satire of white trash marital angst that is some kind of ultimate American-style marriage of small-tube “reality” programming and Dogma aesthetics, the tongue-in-cheek-titled “Good Housekeeping” is an eminently worthy winner of Slamdance’s feature Grand Prize. This is a rare no-budget pic that both plays with auds and leaves a strong morning-after impression, an effectively exaggerated view of human tragedy that makes you ponder that tragedy after the dust clears. Once filmmaker Frank Novak makes a 35mm blowup of his current 16mm print, he should have little problem luring hardy distribs to a potential sleeper which could draw throngs on the alternative and arthouse circuit.
Novak grew current pic from the seeds planted in his 1996 short, “Domestic Disturbance,” and that film’s verite approach is continued here. With remarkable effectiveness and raw, assertive energy, pic drops us right down into the maelstrom that is the disintegrated marriage of action-figure collector Don (Bob Mills) and Italian-born Donatella (Petra Westen), who are so alienated from each other that they employ only son Don Jr. (Andrew Eichner) as their conversational go-between.
Both spouses feel compelled to stay in their grungy North Hollywood home prior to their divorce court date two weeks hence, but while Donatella refuses to budge out of fear that she will lose everything in court, Don is intent on pushing her every button to drive her screaming out of the house he wants for himself.
Exposition is skillfully laid out by following characters on the run, lending the situation a grinding yet hilarious feeling of the real. Once it’s revealed that Donatella, who works a forklift at a warehouse, is in love with female company accountant Marion (Tacey Adams), Don loses it, waging full war over who controls the house. His belligerent solution is to build a wall splitting the kitchen in two (including a “doggy door” for little Don Jr. to crawl through), and his growing network of friends in the toy-collectibles subculture drunkenly cheer him on.
With a hurtling sense of momentum, side characters pile into the movie, each with distinctive wacko personalities. Contrasting the placid Donatella-Marion relationship is Don’s wild group, like a ’70s bong party frozen in time. His brother-in-law Chuck (singly named thesp Zia) is an ultimate loser, serving as the house “guard” in exchange for living in Don’s prized Cordoba with his crack-addled g.f., Tiffany (Maeve Kerrigan), while taciturn toy collector Barry (Scooter Stephan) is only into making deals for Don’s “legendary” Puppetmaster collection, and fellow collector Mike (Jerry O’Conner) doles out legal advice. Catalyst comes in the form of Joe (Al Schuermann), a men’s rights advocate and gun nut who stokes Don’s emotions and arms him (gratis) with a pistol and, yes, a rocket launcher.
Latter prop is loudest clue that pic is ready to go over the edge if it must, and, even though it does, amazingly, it works. While the Battle of the D’s escalates (accented by repeated visits by exasperated L.A. Sheriff deputies), pic hits some ultra-comic highs.
One involves trashy, obese Roz (Norma Barbour) backing her car out of the driveway and nearly destroying the entire property, while another, featuring Tiffany OD’ing, is one of the best, most surprising blends of drugs and human comedy since “Pulp Fiction.” Even highly debatable conclusion, considering savagery that has come before, is a plus in the sense that it leaves aud discussing serious issues of abusive domestic relationships. Though it’s hard to understand what calm, adult Marion could possibly see in unkempt, high-tempered Donatella, the comedy-satire plays out convincingly because grim, tragic issues support it.
A triumph of indie casting of unknowns, “Good Housekeeping” is knee-deep in delicious thesping, led by Mills, who lets it all out with “Raging Bull”–like outbursts while delivering one-liners with ultra-natural, deadpan skill. Westen is a mightily worthy opponent, filling out a character who could have been a caricature of white trash machisma with layers of hurt and fear. Zia provides one of those invaluable perfs in second-tier characters which lifts pic to another level, while Adams, Stephan, Schuermann, O’Conner, Kerrigan, Barbour and Doug Duane’s Larry complete a universe of well-rounded types (often in more ways than one) where almost anything that can go wrong will.
Smart employment of vet docu d.p. Alex Vendler produces an inventive use of low-light and wide-angle lenses and ultra-mobile cameras, which gamely cover nonstop action in frequently snug quarters. Whole look is less “Cops” than Dogma-goes-to-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks, while soundtrack is wild mix of heavy metal, country, Elgar and Beethoven. Added production bonus is how Novak, co-owner of Modernica furniture company, cleverly places his outfit’s mid-century pieces throughout interiors.