Idiots and Angels

Good battles evil as a gun-running, booze-swilling, cigarette-puffing badass is dragged, kicking and screaming, toward salvation in Bill Plympton's slyly sardonic black comedy, his best animated feature to date.

Good battles evil as a gun-running, booze-swilling, cigarette-puffing badass is dragged, kicking and screaming, toward salvation in Bill Plympton’s slyly sardonic black comedy, his best animated feature to date. Closer in drawing style and mood to Plympton’s award-winning shorts, with all their grungy metamorphic grotesquerie intact, “Idiots and Angels” may attract the larger arthouse auds that have thus far eluded Plympton in his feature forays. Its totally wordless corporeal pantomime is poised to widen his already considerable worldwide fan base.

Plympton posits a gruesomely funny tension between the seemingly spiritual quality of pic’s Manichean premise and the raw physicality of its manifestation: Angel wings sprout from the back of our nameless hero, resistant to all his bloody attempts to rid himself of the unwanted appendages.

These bathroom scenes can be interpreted as man resisting the influence of his better nature, but play like skin-nicking gross-out comedy, eliciting cringes as well as laughs from audiences. This duality mirrors the dynamic at the heart of most of Plympton’s work — the pull between the inescapable drawingness of the drawing and the visceral nature of what it depicts.

Plymptoons, dating back to the physiognomic transmutations of 1987’s “Your Face,” have always relied on sudden eruptions of sex and violence to elicit audience response. What’s new about “Idiots” is its discovery of an overarching concept that lifts these jokes into uncharted areas of existential, even religious thinking, its framework incorporating not just the antihero’s death but his improbable “resurrection” — all manifested in the slimiest terms imaginable.

Pic transpires largely within the Bukowskian confines of a dingy bar inhabited by the protagonist, an unctuous barkeeper, his romance-starved blonde wife and a larcenous, overweight, over-the-hill floozy. Time slows to an almost Leone-like standstill, supplemented with impossible camera angles from inside ashtrays and half-empty shot glasses as pic’s limited animation becomes a concrete measure of the characters’ anomie.

The hero’s less-than-sterling character is firmly established early on as he lights a fuse to the gas tank of a guy who tries to take his parking space, then sexually assaults the barkeep’s wife.

As befits Plympton’s universe, though, it soon becomes apparent that greed and violence are not the exception but the norm. When a caterpillar transforms itself into a butterfly atop the hero’s head, the bartender envisions caging it and charging admission (in a thought-balloon reverie reminiscent of Chuck Jones’ “One Froggy Evening”). Meanwhile, the floozy fantasizes about unfolding giant cloth wings to reveal her corpulent body to a cheering, leering audience as money and jewelry rain down from above.

Plympton, like David Cronenberg, explores the subterranean links between interior and exterior, so that angel wings can invite venal dreams of fame and fortune and yank the hero willy-nilly toward the performance of unnatural good deeds. Every step of the process is rendered in the hyperactive, swirly pencil lines that, in this world, constitute all matter.

Idiots and Angels

Production: A Plymptoon presentation and production. Produced by Biljana Labovic. Directed, written by Bill Plympton. (Color); editor, Kevin Palmer; music, Nicole Renaud, Corey A. Jackson, Tom Waits, Pink Martini, Moby; art directors, Plympton, Labovic; animation, Plympton; color compositing, Kerri Allegretta, Lisa LaBracio; digital compositing, Labovic; sound designer, Greg Sextro. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Encounters), May 1, 2008. Running time: 78 MIN.

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