“Manure” begs the question, why would anyone set out to make a crappy movie? But that’s exactly what the Polish brothers — purveyors of arcane Americana since “Twin Falls Idaho” — intended with this conceptual homage to 1960s fertilizer salesmen, concocting an afterthought plot to support nearly two hours of nonstop poop jokes. Freud would have a field day with “Manure,” so pronounced is this debacle’s scatological obsession, though most auds aren’t so keen on sifting through doodoo for deeper meaning. Don’t be surprised if the pic’s eventual distributor markets “Manure” by challenging the public to see the film that stunk up Sundance.
The comedy follows five salesmen (or “bullshitters,” in the pic’s parlance) and the heir to a top manure company (Tea Leoni, looking like a Hitchcock heroine in her Edith Head-style ensembles) as they try to keep the business afloat after its former owner “hit the fan.” Since the Polish brothers take their puns seriously, the bad news about Mr. Rose’s demise is accompanied by a cut to his corpse caught in the giant blades.
With the company in turmoil, the old man’s daughter goes through the records to find millions of dollars in debt, and fires all but a handful of salesmen. Patrick Fitzpatrick (Billy Bob Thornton, back in “The Man Who Wasn’t There” mode) smooth-talks farmers with lines like, “It’s smart customers such as yourself that make Roses No. 1 in the No. 2 business.”
In their cheap brown suits and coffee-colored sedans, these five guys evoke the world of Willy Loman (whose name graces the neon marquee of one motel) or Albert and David Maysles’ haunting American Dream docu “Salesman.” But the Polish boys see things differently, playing the scenario more for Coen brothers-style humor than grand existential tragedy.
Every surface, from the crops in the earth to the clouds in the sky, has been carefully color-graded and painted the appropriate shade of excrement. What looks like a quick job of sepia-toning the entire film in post is in fact a meticulous pre-production process that called for special sets and buckets of brown paint, suggesting a parallel universe where old movies and midcentury nostalgia merge.
While swing jazz sets the mood, the salesmen go about trying to save the company, when a rival outfit headed by Kyle MacLachlan air-drops crates of their chemically based fertilizer over Roses’ territory. The incursion touches off a surreal war between salesmen, with cartoonish results.
For all its faults, not everything about “Manure” is as awful as it sounds. There’s something to be said for a director willing to risk ridicule for attempting to elevate excrement to art. Helmer Michael Polish (who co-wrote with brother Mark) builds on the keen visual sense of the brothers’ earlier films, and certain compositions prove as evocative as Edward Hopper paintings. “Manure” would appear to be the film they intended to make.