Bill Plympton’s first feature in five years — a fairly long pause for this nearly one-man animation factory — is about l’amour, which of course leads almost immediately to strife and loads of sexual humor. Like most of his efforts, “Cheatin'” has a bit of trouble sustaining full interest even over a relatively limited runtime. But it’s also one of his best longform toons, an energetic romp less dependent on grotesquerie than usual (which is not to say that quality is absent), and with distinctive, freewheeling visual imagination on giddy display. The dialogue-free pic should cross a fair number of borders (it already has French distribution), perhaps slightly expanding Plympton’s fanbase in niche multiformat release.
Lured into an amusement ride by a carnival barker, beauteous Ella is saved from a dire accidental fate by musclebound Jake, and next thing we know they’re married. Mattress-pounding connubial bliss, however, is derailed when a jealous female admirer hands Jake faked evidence of Ella’s infidelity. Sobbing in agony as he recklessly drives home (in one of the best setpieces here), Jake promptly moves out and into a motel, and even more promptly commences shagging the astronomical number of women who throw themselves at him.
More than a little piqued, Ella unsuccessfully hires a hitman to off her hubby in retaliation, then uses a magician’s “Trans-Soul Machine” to inhabit the bodies of the ladies he’s having revenge sex with. This sci-fi element doesn’t work as well in narrative terms as the outlandishly depicted but more emotionally grounded material before it. But then, narrative is more of a stumbling block than a strength in Plympton’s films, and “Cheatin'” sustains its wisp of plot better than most. Where much of his prior work had a heavy, sometimes juvenile emphasis on bodily substances and miscellaneous ickiness, that’s downplayed here without sacrificing his trademark surreal physicality.
The writer-director-producer’s pulsing, pencil-etched, pastel-hued animation style is a pleasure to behold as ever, and Nicole Renaud’s score (featuring her own wordless vocals) has a traditional Gallic feel in line with the setting’s vaguely European air.