Writer-director-producer Ash Christian made an uneven but frequently funny feature debut with 2006’s “Fat Girl,” a “Napoleon Dynamite”-esque teen comedy about a misfit gay boy turning his social-lemon status into lemonade. Sophomore effort “Mangus!” ups the bad-taste stakes further, recalling the outrageous trailer-trash scenarios of seminal ’70s works by John Waters (who duly makes a cameo appearance). But this time the results strain for laughs more often than they achieve them, despite a colorful look and expert comic talents like Jennifer Coolidge and Leslie Jordan. Pic should find an audience in niche home-format exposure, but theatrical prospects are slight.
Mangus Spedgewick (Ryan Boggus) has one goal in life: to play the titular figure in “Jesus Christ Spectacular,” his Texas high school’s admitted “poor man’s version of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,'” thus following in the footsteps of a dad and grandpa who also essayed the role onstage. Mangus has the chops and enthusiasm to spare. Upon winning the coveted part, however, he and friends celebrate with a drunken limo ride that ends in tragedy. Now paralyzed from the waist down, Mangus still expects to play J.C. until the mayor’s scheming wife convinces school officials it would be blasphemous to have a “cripple Jesus,” thus allowing her son Farrell (John Montoya) to usurp the lead.
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Adding to Mangus’ woes, his understanding pa (Charles Solomon Jr.) ships out to Iraq for another military service stint, leaving the teen in charge of nasty stepmom Raquel (Deborah Theaker). She promptly dumps him on the doorstep of his divorced mom, Cookie (Coolidge), a “hair artiste” living with much younger beau Buddy (Peter S. Williams) as well as Mangus’ antagonistic older sibling, Jessica (Heather Matarazzo).
Bent on getting his dream role back, Mangus enlists Jessica to help scare Farrell, a plan that goes so awry the two are forced to go on the lam to Hollywood — although their Greyhound’s destination ends up being Hollywood, Fla., “dinner-theater capital of the world.” This detour just briefly delays the climactic “Jesus Christ Spectacular” opening, which — like too much of “Mangus!” — sounds hilariously promising in concept yet delivers just mild amusement in execution.
Christian’s humor is nothing if not broad (the local radio station is “WKKK”), but while pic manages to stay good-natured despite all the caricatures and cruel twists of fate, it lacks the extra dose of inspiration that might have rendered its crass comedy liberating rather than just effortful. Some performers do manage to goose the material from time to time, notably daffy Coolidge, Jordan as the flighty drama instructor, Williams’ genially brain-dead stud, and Montoya as a twink who insists he’s straight despite being the flamingest critter in the Lone Star State.
Tech package is decent on a budget; design contributions aim for a low-rent gaudiness that suits characters who’d be quite at home on “The Jerry Springer Show.”