If this weekend you’re only seeing one depressing character study about an unemployable, fatherless, antisocial manchild who lives with his sickly mother, is often unattractively shirtless, and eventually decides society must pay violently for his general misery … then you are almost certainly going to “Joker.” As it happens, however, there is an alternative also fitting that description perfectly well. “Cuck” is, in fact, “Joker” with even less vestige of superheroics than Todd Phillips’ atypical comic-book movie, about precisely the sort of people some have feared will take “Joker” as an incitement to real-world violence: the usually white incel-type man who feels marginalized and somehow robbed of success, who in worst-case scenarios ends up shooting up a school, workplace or other public space to feel his rage isn’t entirely impotent.
It’s certainly worth having more than one film wade into this terrain, particularly since “Joker” allegedly goes out of its way to keep itself (and its hero, in his own words) “not political.” But as discomfiting and effective as Rob Lambert’s debut indie feature often is, this downbeat drama problematically stacks the deck by levying just about every dysfunctional trait and scenario imaginable on its hapless protagonist. Well before he’s killed anyone, the movie itself suffers from a different kind of overkill, one that dilutes its sum impact, and could give ammunition to the inevitable haters who’ve already plummeted its IMBD rating, sight unseen. It opens on a dozen U.S. screens Oct. 4, day and date with a nationwide VOD launch.
Ronnie (Zachary Ray Sherman) is a classic candidate for delusions of grandeur, not to mention martyrdom: He imagines himself some kind of super-patriot defending his nation from various threats, while in fact he spends nearly all his time at home in a bleak Southern California suburb, watching porn or visiting alt-right sites online, henpecked by his sickly old mother (Sally Kirkland). He’s unemployed, unskilled and unmotivated, fixated on a dream of military service already nixed by his failing the psychiatric entrance exam. (Nor is he in better shape physically — erstwhile “90210” star Sherman gained 45 pounds of flab for the role.) Relationship prospects are nil, and no wonder, since Ronnie’s real-world social skills are such that in the presence of an actual woman, he goes from fumbling to “stuck-up b—h!!” in a heartbeat.
While lamentable, these things aren’t really anyone else’s fault. But Ronnie finds ample voices online to reassure him that all his problems are really the doing of “illegals,” “feminazis,” “fags” and other phantom menaces nowhere evident in his day-to-day life, yet which are somehow “running the show.” He channels such sentiments into vlog posts on a far-right site where his inimitable insights on topics like “The Truth About Women” (hint: they’re bad) find an appreciative audience among what celebrity white supremacist Chance Dixon (Travis Hammer) calls “like-minded patriots.”
Nonetheless, Ronnie does make some efforts to improve his situation. He gets a stock-boy job at a local market run by an Arabic father (David Diann) and son (Adam Eishar), though his racial attitudes are unlikely to make that last long. He scores a coffee date with a nice collegiate woman (Jessica Jade Andres), though … well, you can guess how that goes. His MILF fantasies seem to be coming true when he develops an acquaintance with a sexy neighbor (Monique Parent as Candy). Most exhilarating, his vlog posts attract favorable attention from his hero Mr. Dixon himself.
All these things are destined to blow up in our antihero’s face, unsurprisingly. Still, “Cuck” — named after the popular conservative slang for “spineless liberal” that to Ronnie’s horror is eventually used against him — errs by over-stacking that deck, pushing Lambert and Joe Varkle’s screenplay toward caricature. Not everything that might occur to someone like Ronnie needed to be in this one movie. Forty-three years ago, “Taxi Driver” seemed brilliant but bizarre. Now the world is full of Travis Bickles, ticking time bombs with easy access to artillery and lots of grudges they feel the need to settle. His vulnerabilities only exacerbated by new-ish media and political realities, Ronnie is a plausible 21st-century version of that damaged, dangerous American everyman.
But this overlong movie would have been more effective if it had trusted its strong performances and atmosphere to provide sufficient tension, rather than piling on too many contrived reasons for Ronnie to explode. If real life has taught us anything in recent years, it’s that it no longer takes all that much to light the fuse — or to create such personality types in the first place. For the sake of a safe and civil society, such frustrated individuals bear examimation. The less melodramatic hyperbole deployed in depicting them, the better our understanding will be. “Cuck” is powerful so long as we’re simply trapped observing Ronnie’s all-too-palpable incomprehension and childlike tantrums over his dead-end circumstances. But when those circumstances start to feel rigged, the film’s value as analysis of a hot-button social phenomenon begins to cool.