×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie’

An entertaining, affectionate look at one of syndicated TV's most attention-getting sideshows.

With:
Gloria Allred, Richard Bey, Pat Buchanan, Kelli Downey Cornwell, Stanley Crouch, Alan Dershowitz, Chris Elliott, Peter Goldsmith, Melody Miller, Steven Pagones, Bob Pittman, Sally Jessy Raphael, Joey Reynolds, Lloyd Schoonmaker, Curtis Sliwa.

Exactly the sort of figure presaged by “Network,” Morton Downey Jr., with his unique blend of bullying, liberal-baiting politics and Barnum-like eye for the human circus, turned his latenight New York talkshow into syndicated TV’s most attention-getting sideshow. Now Downey’s brief but influential moment in the spotlight is the subject of “Evocateur,” an entertaining, affectionate docu created by three self-professed fanboys, which proves as nostalgic for the host himself as for a bygone broadcast era, before the reality-TV explosion allowed the inmates to fully take over the asylum. Solid reviews and fest pedigree should draw the Downey faithful and assorted other media gadflies to this day-and-date Magnolia release.

As New York and New Jersey high schoolers in the 1980s, co-directors Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger never actually made it to a taping of “The Morton Downey Jr. Show,” but various friends and friends of friends did, some becoming regular members of the mob-like studio audience known as “the Beast.” Two decades later, some of them, interviewed here, look back with a mix of fondness and embarrassment at clips from the show, reasoning that the hyperactive host’s unambiguous, take-no-prisoners style held a special appeal for pimply-faced teens — and somewhat less innocently, for a particular breed of bigoted, disenfranchised suburban white male (unsurprisingly, Downey’s largest demographic).

The brainchild of producer and MTV co-founder Bob Pittman, who envisioned Downey as a successor to controversial 1960s talk host Joe Pyne, “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” premiered in the fall of 1987 on New Jersey-based WWOR, went national in 1988 and was canceled by the summer of 1989 — a relatively brief tenure that nevertheless feels like an epic in this telling, complete with the usual culprits of money, sex and unregulated ego. Employing a lively mix of talking heads, compulsively watchable excerpts from the show, and several animated interludes that turn Downey into a literal cartoon character, pic posits its subject as someone who was determined to find his way into the zeitgeist by any means necessary. Despite his claim to speak for the common working man, Downey himself was a child of Hollywood, the son of famed Irish tenor Morton Downey Sr. and the nephew of actress Joan Bennett, who grew up counting the Kennedys as family friends and flirted with a singing career of his own before finding his true metier.

“Evocateur” suggests Downey was the antecedent to a host of slightly better-behaved conservative pundits, including Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, as well as shows like “Jersey Shore” that have highlighted the very kind of Jersey loudmouths who once populated Downey’s audience. Meanwhile, friends and former colleagues address the lingering question of whether Downey was being sincere or engaging in an elaborate form of performance art. (The answer: By the end of the show’s run, Downey himself could scarcely tell the difference anymore.) It’s an intriguing cast of characters that includes former Downey sparring partners Gloria Allred, Pat Buchanan and Alan Dershowitz, fellow hosts Richard Bey and Sally Jessy Raphael, and Downey’s daughter, Kelli, who offers a generally warm remembrance of her late father, even while acknowledging the sometimes compromising positions he placed her in (especially with regard to his womanizing).

Downey reached the peak of his popularity — and arguably his nadir — with his extended/obsessive coverage of the Tawana Brawley alleged rape case, culminating in a raucous onstage shoving match-cum-brawl between Brawley advocate Al Sharpton and civil rights advocate Roy Innis during a 1988 taping at the Apollo Theater. Despite being characterized as a friend and occasional co-conspirator, Sharpton is conspicuous by his absence here, as are any of Downey’s four wives and three other daughters — suggesting there may be more unfinished business than “Evocateur” would like us to think.

Pic also largely glosses over Downey’s post-syndication years (which included a bankruptcy and myriad lower-profile TV and radio gigs), devoting most of its final section to the lung cancer battle that rendered the former chain smoker a gaunt, contrite shadow of his former self — and, of course, thrust him back into the headlines.

Film Review: 'Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie'

(Documentary) Reviewed online, New York, June 7, 2013. (In Tribeca Film Festival — Spotlight.) Running time: 91 MIN.

Production: A Magnolia Pictures release presented with Ironbound Films. Produced by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, Jeremy Newberger.

Crew: Directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, Jeremy Newberger. Screenplay, Miller. Camera (color, digital), Kramer, Sean Cunningham, Ken Fuhr, Roger Tibbetts Grange III,  Richard Patterson, Rodney Patterson, Chad Wilson, Ben Wolf; editor, Kramer; music, Peter Rundquist; art director, Newberger; sound, Rob Bochar, Paul Levin; supervising sound editor, Aaron Weisblatt; associate producer, Graham Wright;  animation director, Murray John; animation, Hamyard.

With: Gloria Allred, Richard Bey, Pat Buchanan, Kelli Downey Cornwell, Stanley Crouch, Alan Dershowitz, Chris Elliott, Peter Goldsmith, Melody Miller, Steven Pagones, Bob Pittman, Sally Jessy Raphael, Joey Reynolds, Lloyd Schoonmaker, Curtis Sliwa.

More Film

  • FX's 'Snowfall' Panel TCA Winter Press

    John Singleton Hospitalized After Suffering Stroke

    John Singleton, the two-time Oscar nominated director and writer of “Boyz N’ the Hood,” has suffered a stroke. Sources confirm to Variety that Singleton checked himself into the hospital earlier this week after experiencing pain in his leg. The stroke has been characterized by doctors as “mild.” According to TMZ, which first broke the news, [...]

  • 'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow

    'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow Easter Weekend at the Box Office

    New Line’s horror pic “The Curse of La Llorona” will summon a solid $25 million debut at the domestic box office, leading a quiet Easter weekend before Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” hits theaters on April 26. The James Wan-produced “La Llorona,” playing in 3,372 theaters, was a hit with hispanic audiences, who accounted for nearly 50% [...]

  • Jim Jarmusch in 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    Film Review: 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    “Carmine Street Guitars” is a one-of-a-kind documentary that exudes a gentle, homespun magic. It’s a no-fuss, 80-minute-long portrait of Rick Kelly, who builds and sells custom guitars out of a modest storefront on Carmine Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, and the film touches on obsessions that have been popping up, like fragrant weeds, in [...]

  • Missing Link Laika Studios

    ‘Missing Link’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Annapurna Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Missing Link.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.91 million through Sunday for [...]

  • Little Woods

    Film Review: 'Little Woods'

    So much of the recent political debate has focused on the United States’ southern border, and on the threat of illegal drugs and criminals filtering up through Mexico. But what of the north, where Americans traffic opiates and prescription pills from Canada across a border that runs nearly three times as long? “Little Woods” opens [...]

  • Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping

    Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping $60 Million (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix has become a destination for television visionaries like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, with deals worth $100 million and $250 million, respectively, and top comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle ($40 million and $60 million, respectively). The streaming giant, which just announced it’s added nearly 10 million subscribers in Q1, is honing in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content