“Smile for the camera, motherf—ers,” warns the graffiti outside the Roaring Twenties, a Las Vegas dive bar where spirits are high because the end is nigh. The boozers who’ve braved this dim red cave, in Bill and Turner Ross’ bitterly funny docufiction film “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” have signed on to play themselves in an improv exercise about a gang of regulars toasting the bar’s final 24 hours in business before, one grumbles, “it’ll become a CVS.”
The Ross brothers have gambled that they can edit together a dramedy from organic ingredients. It’s an arthouse twist on the Murray-Bunim reality TV cocktail: Stir a dozen or so hand-picked heavy-drinkers into an actual bar with actual alcohol, and with a spritz of plot setup, these extroverts start talking about life, love, sex, war, family, politics, aging and regret. Though the title cautions violence, it’s evident that these hard-living folks — whether in their 20s, 70s, or so weary they simply look like they’re in their 70s — prefer self-inflicted pain, gulped down shot by shot, year by year. “I ruined my life sober,” chuckles gray-haired Mike to the morning bartender. “Then I came to you.”
The Roaring Twenties is not a real bar. It’s not even in Las Vegas (though B-roll footage of the city’s fake pyramids and plastic wedding chapel backdrops of Niagara Falls make it an apt setting for fakery). “Bloody Nose” was filmed over three days in New Orleans, where local actor Mike (full name: Michael Martin) has performed Faust to glowing acclaim. (He also played a homeless man in the Will Ferrell/Kevin Hart comedy “Get Hard.”) The directors discovered him as the soused patriarch in a stage production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Yet when Mike, bleary with 2 a.m. exhaustion, counsels a young musician, “There’s nothing more boring than a guy who used to do stuff who doesn’t do stuff no more because he’s in a bar,” the film wants us to believe Mike’s not acting — he’s genuinely vulnerable.
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Barflies are natural entertainers. The cast use their own names and biographies and beer-steeped insights as they jockey for attention. If you take the time to search each one by name, you’ll find that a few are improv comedians, writers and guitarists. (One, Lowell Landes, was in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and a music video for New Orleans’ Big Freedia, where he played Simple Mennonite Forbidden from Dancing who Leaves the Congregation to Celebrate Freedia.) The other half truly might be people the Ross brothers’ scooped up in other bars, as they claim to have done. Regardless, no one looks healthy. An Australian takes off his pants. Still, the instant friends scatter one-liners like peanut shells until they’ve drunk to their limit (or beyond it) and totter out past cameras that they no longer register.
The stragglers splinter and regroup to argue and cry and hug. Singles glare at couples, Millennials accuse Boomers, and veterans embrace their fellow veterans, sniffling that they’re the only folks who understand the American government’s betrayal. Some have been given the mildest backstory, say, that both philandering musician Pete and suit-clad David have a crush on laconic bartender Shay, who’s preoccupied keeping her teen son from stealing beers. It’s doubtful it was David’s idea to show up with roses, but after a few hours, and a few beers, what started as method acting melts into his own loneliness and competitive instinct, and he challenges Pete to a fight.
To viewers who aren’t aware of the Ross brothers’ experiment, the chaos can feel unethical. This is “a not-party,” someone quips, and it does feel as though, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, we’re not sure who to trust in wonderland. It’s “The Bachelorette” wed to “The Iceman Cometh”: the setup is staged, but the tears are real. If the viewer knows the conceit, it’s obvious when a line sounds slipped to a performer, like a number scrawled on a napkin. Mike opens the film quoting “Macbeth” while 60-year-old Pam channels Scarlett O’Hara, crowing, “Tomorrow is another day!” before whipping off her shirt to boast she has the breasts of a woman half her age. (To be fair, she’s telling the truth.)
The TV can’t resist playing something resonant, say an old black-and-white Clark Gable movie, a news-brief about a shuttering Las Vegas landmark or the looming Car-nado — a traffic jam that’s threatens to shut down all movement. For a minute, the bar pauses to watch “Jeopardy” contestants flub a question about the Navajo, and the film nudges us to recognize that someday, these people too will be forgotten Americans. When most of the group briefly decamps to the parking lot to smash a cake that reads, “This place sucked anyway,” the movie switches to security camera footage that makes the remaining man inside look like a ghost who may haunt this place forever.
In its loveliest sequence, the camera catches Mike’s reflection in a mirror as he sings Roy Orbison to himself. He’s no Celine Dion. She can shove it, someone mutters. Dion symbolizes the wealth that’s bulldozed the gritty Las Vegas they’re meant to represent. Phony or not, “Bloody Nose” wants to memorialize the weirdos that were. As the day bartender shrugs, “I don’t even care about this town anymore — they’re losing character.” At least there’s plenty of characters in here.