If Flannery O’Connor had ever abandoned writing to try her hand at Southern-fried reality TV, the result would probably look something like Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel’s “Finders Keepers.” At times gleefully indulging in the absurdities of one of the decade’s weirdest man-bites-dog news stories — involving a pitched legal battle over ownership of a severed leg — and at others halting the laughter in its tracks to dig deep into the pain and struggles of the real people involved, this hysterical, insightful and genuinely empathetic documentary could easily prove a specialty hit with the right handling.
“Finders Keepers” is not the first doc to attempt to restore three-dimensional humanity to someone who had essentially become a human meme — Ben Steinbauer’s “Winnebago Man” is a worthy predecessor — but it’s unusually skillful in balancing its rubberneck entertainment value with warm, wise perspective. As one interviewee notes, “It’s a funny story, but it’s borne of tragedy,” and the filmmakers make sure to acknowledge both.
As for that story, it’s about as bizarre as they come. In 2004, John Wood, the thirtysomething ne’er-do-well son of a successful North Carolina businessman, lost his left leg in a small plane crash that also claimed the life of his father. Hoping to reclaim the skeletal remains of his leg to create a memorial of some sort, he instead received the appendage with skin and muscle intact. Following a comedy of errors which saw him attempt to store the leg in a Hardee’s fast-food joint (and pick it back up in the drive-through lane), he finally mummified it himself by “basting it like a roast in embalming fluid,” hung it from a tree to dry, and stashed it inside a smoker in a storage space.
After he failed to pay his rent on the space, Wood’s possessions were sold at auction, with the smoker claimed by a motormouthed local hustler named Shannon Whisnant. Discovering the leg still inside, Whisnant seized the opportunity to turn his findings into a twisted tourist attraction, charging a fee to gawk at the grill, and even printing up T-shirts advertising “Foot Smoker BBQ.”
As soon as Wood attempted to reclaim his leg, the whole affair blew open a gold mine for the local news, with Whisnant — a shameless self-promoter whose lifelong hunger for fame had already seen him tussle with hecklers on “The Jerry Springer Show” — claiming full ownership of the preserved limb. Initially reluctant to join the media circus, Wood eventually got in on the action, too, and the story made the papers as far away as Japan, finally resolving with an appearance on the syndicated courtroom show “Judge Mathis.”
In its lighter moments, “Finders Keepers” can be a riotous, “Bernie”-style romp through the oddities of the rural South, replete with deadpan local law enforcement, a “Star Trek”-obsessed forensic veterinarian and a Greek chorus of downtown characters. But without marking a noticeable tonal shift, the film makes just as much room to examine the human wreckage left behind long after the tittering news anchors had moved on.
Most painfully, the good-natured yet vulnerable Wood had already survived brushes with drug addiction (in addition to having been shot, electrocuted and run over by a dump truck) long before the fateful accident, and his 15 minutes of fame all but destroy him. Gradually digging himself so deep into the hole that he invites his dealer along on a trip to Germany (to appear on a talkshow, naturally), Wood systematically alienates family and friends, and soon finds himself living under a bridge, flat broke.
While Wood is immediately sympathetic and clearly has the moral high ground in the battle over his own body part, it’s damn near impossible not to laugh both along with, and at, Whisnant, with his nontraditional use of the word “perspire,” his offer of “joint custody” of the leg, and his description of his own comic stylings as “a combination of ‘Eddie Murphy Raw’ … and a few others.” He’s one homespun bon mot away from becoming a John Goodman Coen brothers character, yet he, too, proves himself worthy of a closer look. With a mercantile ruthlessness forged out of an abusive childhood — deprived of all the comforts and privileges that Wood managed to squander — Whisnant is agonizingly desperate for the limelight even when he’s well aware he’s being exploited, and one leaves the film not entirely sure who got the rawer deal.
Perfectly thorough without ever testing patience, “Finders Keepers” breaks no new formal ground, but with subjects as memorable as these, there’s little need to.