The potentiality of a President Trump has many pondering Americans’ susceptibility to snake-oil salesmen, making it a particularly opportune moment for “Nuts,” about a now-little-remembered public figure of great popular appeal nearly a century ago. Penny Lane’s feature relates the bizarre saga of John R. Brinkley in a novel mix of archival materials, latter-day commentators, unreliable voice-actor narration and primarily animated visuals. The stranger-than-fiction result is a prankishly entertaining documentary well-suited for people who think they don’t like documentaries. While continuing on the festival trail it commenced with a Sundance premiere this past January, “Nuts” launches its U.S. theatrical run June 22 at NYC’s Film Forum, with about two dozen additional hardtops booked so far.
Thom Stylinski’s screenplay is billed as based on “The Life of a Man,” a vanity biography of Brinkley written by Clement Wood, a prolific hack writer who, like his subject, claimed expertise on innumerable subjects and for a time pursued a political career. It was published in 1934, the year in which Brinkley’s hitherto whopping good fortune began its irreversible decline. But for the first hour of “Nuts,” Lane (“Our Nixon”) and Stylinski offer Wood’s hagiographic, Horatio Alger-like take on a wholesome poor boy from North Carolina who through sheer industry and innovation scaled the heights of success — despite cruel persecution from jealous Establishment entities such as the American Medical Association.
Brinkley did indeed grow up poor in North Carolina, with dreams of becoming a doctor. By his early 30s he’d established a practice in Milford, Kan. There, a farmer’s impotency complaints purportedly triggered his greatest breakthrough: Implanting goat gonads in patients, a procedure he soon claimed cured just about every other human ailment as well. Astonishingly, favorable word of this spread like wildfire, not only making him the economic engine of tiny Milford, but attracting attention and rumored famous patients far afield. (As illustration of the concept’s pop-culture infiltration, Lane includes a clip from Buster Keaton’s 1922 comedy “Cops” that hinges on a “goat gland specialist” joke.) Eventually Brinkley claimed he was able to reproduce the same results sans surgery, injecting a serum instead.
Whatever his medical acumen, Brinkley was undeniably a genius at self-promotion. Discovering the advertising potential of radio, he conquered that medium with a vengeance, creating his own hugely powerful stations (including one just across the border in Mexico when U.S. regulation hobbled his stateside operations) which among other things did much to popularize country or “hillbilly” music. At the height of his public profile, he ran for public office several times, offering a tempting if implausible roster of freebies to each citizen if elected. In fact, he would have become the Governor of Kansas had the political establishment not managed to disqualify thousands of his write-in votes on a questionable technicality.
By that time, however, Brinkley’s nemeses at the AMA and Federal Radio Commission were getting the upper hand. While he continued to broadcast and make vanity newsreels (excepted here) of folky mansion family life, his empire was about to fall, hard. “Nuts’” final third reveals much of the unflattering truth that laid beneath the first hour’s careful, “authorized” bio-fiction: Its hero was in fact a secret bigamist with dubious academic credentials and an arrest record. His professional “quackery” (and accumulated wealth) would come undone in a blitz of wrongful death suits and other legal woes.
By emphasizing Brinkley’s remarkable “self-made-man” accomplishments over their grimmer consequences (no one knows precisely how many patients ultimately died as a result of his “treatments”), Lane and company create a sort of prankish ode to the classic American Dream of hard work and high ideals leading inevitably to fame, fortune and happiness. That’s what Brinkley was really selling, and he mastered its packaging even if the content turned out to be mostly fraudulent. (His pricey cure-all serum was discovered to be distilled water plus blue dye.)
It’s a tale of cartoonish, believe-it-or-not hubris and gullibility that’s well-served by the tactic of being illustrated by different animators for seven successive narrative chapters. While their styles are diverse, they stick to a general template (including mostly B&W or sepia hues), flowing together effectively. Apart from archival footage, the only significant live-action elements are talking-head interviews with a quartet of specialized historians.
There’s little larger-context meaning to “Nuts” beyond that which the viewer brings to it, and sometimes (particularly in the rather broad voice contributions to the animated sequences) the film’s humorous tone verges on the overly juvenile. Yet you can’t really say that’s a betrayal of the subject: “The story of the goat nuts doctor” inherently sounds like a pitch for an Adam Sandler comedy. This now-obscure historical chapter can’t help but be silly in the retelling, and Lane surrenders whole to that silliness. All design and technical contributions resourcefully reinforce her primary desire to amuse.