It’s easier to appreciate the guiding ambition and intelligent effort that went into “Only in America,” a political satire about contempo life in the U.S., than to really like or enjoy it. In his directorial debut, Dallas-based helmer Rusty Martin takes as his aim several relevant issues, such as the war on drugs, the popularity of televangelism and the power of the mass media, but pic’s overly complex structure and its multitude of themes ultimately work against emotional involvement. New indie holds limited commercial viability, but is an easy rider on the regional film festival road.
The core of story’s three intertwined layers concerns the war on drugs and the ineptitude of the police and other institutional forces in dealing with the problem. In the first, rather poignant scene, two cops, followed by a TV reporter, break into the wrong house; later, the wrong girl is sent to a rehab center. Story goes on to depict a twisted, bizarre world in which innocent citizens are victimized, criminals go free — and children are the only rational human beings.
Yarn’s second stratum revolves around the efforts of director Alan Smithee and producer Holly Pendleton to protect their film, “Just Say No to Satan,” from impending legal action by the likes of a cheerleader mom (who tried to kill her daughter’s rival) and a prominent televangelist. Conspiracy dominates the final sequence, which chronicles how two nameless agents gather surveillance information on the filmmakers.
Meant to be a wildly intriguing journey into the social fabric of Dallas as a microcosm of American society, “Only in America” comes across as a mildly amusing satire with too many issues on its mind and not enough original bite to sustain interest in them. The unnecessarily convoluted structure of a film within a film within a film, which becomes clear only at the end, increases the audience’s distance from a tale that is quite disjointed in the first place.
For a while, pic challenges the audience to figure out what’s going on, but at the end, when the multifarious tapestry is unraveled, there’s an element of disappointment — and deja vu. Still, producer Susan Kirr and writer-director Martin reveal themselves as alert artists, dedicated to the making of films of ideas, a rare breed even within the indie milieu. Considering the intricate construction and the huge cast (at least two dozen speaking characters), the satire sails smoothly, if not excitingly.