×

‘Feels Good Man’: Film Review

Pepe the frog’s transformation from easygoing cartoon to notorious symbol of hate is investigated by Arthur Jones’ sharp, absorbing doc.

Director:
Arthur Jones
With:
Matt Furie.

Running time: 92 MIN.

When is a cartoon frog not just a cartoon frog? When he’s Pepe, the brainchild of artist Matt Furie, who in 2005 created the laid-back anthropomorphic amphibian for a comic about post-collegiate slacker life, only to subsequently watch as the character was adopted as a symbol of white nationalist hate by the alt-right and Donald Trump. Named after its subject’s catchphrase, “Feels Good Man” is director Arthur Jones’ nonfiction portrait of Pepe’s ignominious transformation, a strange and terrifying odyssey that says much about intellectual property, fringe groups and the power of online imagery — and culture — to alter the national landscape. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the absorbing doc’s relevance and astuteness should net it across-the-board appeal.

Pepe’s origin story begins in Furie’s comic series “Boy’s Club” and, in particular, an uploaded strip in which the big-eyed, plump-lipped frog pees with his pants pulled down, then confesses to his friend that he does so because it “feels good man.” That should give you some idea of the original Pepe’s level of maturity and gravity. The frog, however, was soon taken very seriously by those on 4chan, the message board safe haven for lonely, angry, disenfranchised outcasts, who embraced the crudely drawn (and thus incredibly malleable) Pepe as the embodiment of their own sad existences spent living on the margins, if not — as one interviewed member does — in their mom’s basement.

Thus a subcultural meme was born, and when Pepe went mainstream — thanks to social media posts by Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj — 4channers responded in typically extreme, furious fashion. Attempting to reestablish their ownership of the character by making him downright un-co-optable, they associated Pepe with 9/11, decorated him with swastikas and had him spew Nazi-esque ugliness. When 4channers started seeing Donald Trump as a like-minded figurehead for their nihilistic worldview, a marriage between the then-presidential candidate and Pepe was born — with a new portrait of a smugly smirking Pepe functioning as a provocation couched as a joke, thereby preemptively staving off criticism.

Popular on Variety

At the center of this unlikely maelstrom was Furie, who comes across as an easygoing guy naturally bewildered and offended by the fact that his creation has become an emblem of the likes of Trump, Richard Spencer (famously punched on camera while explaining his Pepe pin), Alex Jones (sued by Furie for selling posters featuring the frog) and their intolerant acolytes. Director Jones clearly sympathizes with Furie’s (seemingly futile) creative and legal attempts to reclaim his creation for more positive purposes. Nonetheless, both filmmaker and artist also concede that Furie’s refusal to squash the burgeoning meme-ification of Pepe during its nascent stages was a catastrophic mistake — thus turning the documentary, on the one hand, into a cautionary tale about ceding control of one’s work to the public at large.

By the time the Anti-Defamation League adds Pepe to its hate-symbol register, and people begin buying “rare Pepe” memes with cryptocurrency known as “Pepe Ca$h” (seriously), “Feels Good Man” has thoroughly detailed the character’s winding route to insane infamy. In the process, it provides a primer about the way 21st-century images and ideas can be unexpectedly, and propagandistically, hijacked and warped. Jones conveys all of this through not only traditional talking-head interviews and archival footage but via extensive animated sequences — based on Furie’s own Pepe and “Boy’s Club” designs — that suggest the hallucinatory and often phantasmagoric nature of this crazy tale.

Driven by Ari Balouzian and Ryan Hope’s alternately playful, anxious and mournful score, “Feels Good Man” offers an inside peek at the internet’s growing ability to affect and shape modern society, which often makes the film a nightmare about extremism and technology. Yet in its closing discussion of Pepe’s new role as a heartening symbol of democracy and resistance for Hong Kong protesters, it also suggests that if the figurative genie can never be put back in the bottle, he can hopefully still be transformed once more — this time from a figure of darkness into one of light.

'Feels Good Man': Film Review

Reviewed at Park Avenue Screening Room, New York, Jan. 17, 2020. (In Sundance Film Festival.) Running time: 92 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Ready Fictions production in association with Wavelength Prods., Chicago Media Project, Secret Sauce Media, Whitewater Films and Museum & Crane (Int'l Sales: Submarine, New York). Producers: Giorgio Angelini, Caryn Capotosto, Arthur Jones, Aaron Wickenden, Maggie Angelini, Kurt Keppeler, Kerry McLaughlin, Caitlin Ward. Executive producers: Jenifer Westphal, Joe Plummer, Steve Cohen, Paula Froehle, Susan Morrison. Co-producer: Caitlin Ward. Co-executive producers: Leslie Berriman, Nion McEvoy, Nancy Blachman, Lou Buglioli.

Crew: Director: Arthur Jones. Writers: Giorgio Angelini, Arthur Jones, Aaron Wickenden. Camera: Guy Mossman. Editor: Aaron Wickenden, Drew Blatman, Katrina Taylor. Music: Ari Balouzian, Ryan Hope.

With: Matt Furie.

More Film

  • 'The Salt of Tears' Review: Philippe

    'The Salt of Tears': Film Review

    Handsome twentysomething Luc is a trainee joiner, a craft inherited from his doting single dad: a man at once proud of his son’s continuation of their trade, and hopeful that he’ll do something greater with it. When Luc asks his father if he ever wanted to design furniture rather than simply build it, the reply [...]

  • Time to Hunt

    'Time to Hunt': Film Review

    As context for those unaware, South Korea does not have the equivalent of the United States’ Second Amendment. Instead, the country enforces strict gun control — privately owned weapons must be stored at the police station — and fatal shootings hardly ever happen there. That’s important to know when watching Korean movies: It explains why [...]

  • SF Studios, Cinematic Inc. Join Forces

    SF Studios, Cinematic Inc. Join Forces on 'Comet in Moominland,' 'When the Doves Disappeared,' 'Omerta'

    SF Studios is joining forces with Antti J. Jokinen’s leading Finnish production banner Cinematic Inc. to develop and produce the animated feature “Comet in Moominland” and “When the Doves Disappeared,” adapted from Sofi Oksanen’s bestseller. “Comet in Moominland” and “When the Doves Disappeared” are being made by both companies as part of a five-picture deal. [...]

  • Tiger Rising

    Exclusive First Look: 'The Tiger Rising' Starring Queen Latifah

    Queen Latifah and Madalen Mills star in Ray Giarratana’s “The Tiger Rising.” The drama is based on Kate DiCamillo’s New York Times Bestselling children’s book and produced by Deborah Giarratana and Ryan Donnell Smith.  Highland Film Group is handling worldwide sales, which are under at the European Film Market in Berlin. The Tiger Rising” is [...]

  • The Berlinale Bear is Seen in

    Berlinale Enlivened by Anti-Chile State Violence Protests

    A politically charged Berlin Film Festival was further enlivened on the third day of the European Film Market by a demonstration targeting Chilean armed forces. On Saturday, the Martin Gropius Bau, the site of the EFM, saw a group of anonymous protestors unfurl a big banner from one of the market’s upper floors, with activists [...]

  • Vadim Perelman, Ilja Zofin, Lars Eidinger

    'Persian Lessons' Eidinger, Perelman Say Film Offers Parallels for Today

    Director Vadim Perelman and frequent Berlinale film star Lars Eidinger on Saturday championed their new Holocaust-set “Persian Lessons” as a timely, very German tale of how that dark history is closer to us than it seems, made uniquely possible by the fact that most of the film’s production team is not German. The film’s world [...]

  • Uppercase Print

    'Uppercase Print': Film Review

    History is a fanged presence in Romanian director Radu Jude’s recent films. Since 2015’s “Aferim!,” in both fiction and nonfiction formats, culminating in the heady tangle of the two approaches that was 2018’s remarkable “I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians,” Jude has interrogated various incidents and epochs in his [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content