Schlock cinema of the 1960s and ’70s gets an affectionate sendup in “The Independent,” an amusing trifle aimed squarely at anyone who fondly recalls the low-budget, high-concept quickies of New World Pictures, American-International and other manufacturers of exploitation fare. Because many of its inside jokes and spot-on parodies will be lost on non-buffs and under-30 ticketbuyers, well-cast comedy has limited theatrical potential. Pic might work as a niche item in the hands of a savvy distrib, but more likely will develop a cult following through small-screen exposure.
A genially slapdash mix of sketch-comedy riffs, faux-documentary interviews and traditional sitcom-style narrative, “The Independent” focuses on the tumultuous life and checkered career of Morty Fineman (Jerry Stiller), an indefatigable multihyphenate whose credits include “Groovy Hippie Slumber Party, ” “LSD-Day,” “Teenie Weenie Bikini Beach” and “Buddy Cops V: Hayseed and Toughnut.” Interviews with friends, admirers and former co-workers render a composite portrait of an influential artist who managed to transcend tight budgets, marginal talent and an unfortunate tendency to put moves on his leading ladies. (Karen Black remembers that, when dealing with Morty’s romantic overtures, “It helped to be drunk.”) But clips from his movies paint a decidedly less flattering picture of a quick-buck, no-shame mini-mogul.
The funniest scenes in “The Independent” are the snippets and coming-attraction trailers used to illustrate the highlights of Morty’s less-than-illustrious career: “Brothers Divided” (conjoined twins — one a pacifist, one a gung-ho warrior — are drafted for Vietnam duty), “Christ for the Defense,” “The Foxy Chocolate Robot” (blaxploitation sci-fi with Fred Williamson and a mechanical co-star) and “The Eco-Angels.” Last title is a hilariously precise parody of 1968’s “The Miniskirt Mob,” and a small gem of persuasive verisimilitude: The actors look, dress and sound just like regulars in mid-’60s B movies, and the faded color appears to have degenerated for three or four decades. Credit goes to the Effects House of New York for doing a great job of “aging” the images.
Director Stephen Kessler, working from a hit-and-miss script he co-wrote with producer Mike Wilkins, strives for a similar kind of plausible fakery during the “interviews” with Black and other real-life notables. With a reasonably straight face, Peter Bogdanovich claims Morty “would try something, and two years later, somebody would copy it and win an Oscar.”
To link the inspired bits and pieces, Kessler and Wilkins spin a conventional but serviceable story about Morty’s umpteenth comeback effort. Still doing what he does best — or, if you prefer, worst — in the fifth decade of his filmmaking career, Morty first appears on the set of his latest opus, “Ms. Kevorkian,” the saga of a gun-wielding sexpot who supports assisted suicide. But Morty is unable to complete the pic because he is, once again, flat broke, and the bank wants to claim his 427-film library and sell off the individual titles for $ 8 a pound.
Morty needs a miracle. What he gets is reluctant help from his long-estranged daughter, Paloma (Janeane Garofalo), who agrees to become president of her father’s failing production company. Despite a few troublesome moral qualms, she helps Morty broker a deal with an imprisoned serial killer who’s willing to sell rights to his life story — but only if Morty agrees to film the docudrama as a musical.
Meanwhile, Ivan (Max Perlich), Morty’s faithful assistant and tireless gofer, tries to elevate his mentor’s profile by talking a film festival — any festival, anywhere — into honoring Morty with a retrospective.”The Independent” would have worked better with a few more ersatz coming-attraction trailers and considerably less filler. More than likely, it would have worked best of all as an hourlong special on Comedy Central.
Still, Stiller gives a robustly comical performance as a producer who qualified to join Ed Wood and Bobby Bowfinger as the most enthusiastically self-deluded Hollywood fringe-dwellers ever depicted onscreen. No obstacle, not even his own ineptitude, gets Mortydown.Garofalo shines as a dry-witted realist who can’t help wanting to help her father, if only to repay him for producing “Cheerleader Camp Massacre” after she failed to make the grade as a high-school pompom girl. And Perlich brings a hangdog sweetness to scenes in which he dutifully recites words of wisdom he has received from Morty. (On the subject of loyalty: “Milk the cow until it’s dry, then make hamburger and wallets.”)
Standout supporting performances include John Lydon’s fey turn as a pretentious film fest director, and Ben Stiller as the star of a bizarre “Free Willy” rip-off called “Whale of a Cop.” Tech values are most impressive in fake trailers and film clips, and more than adequate throughout the rest of “The Independent.” Pic’s Web site, www.finemanfilms.com, is a genuine hoot.