If you thought the Dardenne brothers were the only game in town when it comes to fraternal auteur duos making unvarnished studies of life on the skids in working-class Belgium, newcomers Harpo and Lenny Guit have at least one surprise in store for you. If you’re thinking of the Dardenne brothers at all, however, the Guits’ blithely grotesque debut feature “Mother Schmuckers” will likely deliver several more.
Attempting to bring a stinky shot of John Waters recklessness to a national cinema that has rarely behaved this badly since “Man Bites Dog,” this mayonnaise-dipped gross-out exercise references “Pink Flamingos” straight off the bat with its opening scene of two adult brothers cooking up a fecal feast in the kitchen. Yet as it hobbles along from one knowingly stupid setpiece to the next, “Mother Schmuckers” mellows out into something more akin to “Dude, Where’s My Car?” — if “mellow” is the word for a film that will wring snickers from maggot-eating, bestiality and necrophilia before its (uncharacteristically restrained) 71-minute runtime is up. A relatively inspired selection for this year’s Sundance Midnight program, the Guits’ provocation is about as amiable as something so abjectly appalling can be, though it’s perhaps a few jaw-dropping shocks (or a few uproarious belly-laughs) short of the cult status it seeks.
“Mother Schmuckers” is a canny if indirect translation of the French title, “Fils de plouc” — itself a garbled pun melding the slang terms “plouc” (hick, essentially) and “fils de pute” (son of a prostitute). All these slurs combined are apt enough descriptions of the film’s brain-dead antiheroes Issachar (Maxi Delmelle) and Zabulon (Harpo Guit, as shambolic on camera as he is behind it); in fact, one suspects they’ve heard, and deserved, worse. Twenty-something wastrels with no discernible job, ambition, charisma or purpose between them, they live in a poky Brussels apartment with their long-suffering mother Cashmere (Claire Bodson), a sex worker who openly admits to preferring her perky mongrel January Jack to either of her biological sons.
The mere casting of Bodson, so honest and affecting in the Dardennes’ recent “Young Ahmed,” in these hijinks lands the film its first WTF jolt; another will come when a bewildered Mathieu Amalric turns up out of nowhere in a key role, looking for all the world as if he wandered into the wrong studio. For the bulk of this distinctly unbulky exercise, though, you’re at the mercy of Delmelle and Guit’s debatable charms: As Issachar and Zabulon take to the streets, lose January Jack en route, and encounter the very worst Brussels has to offer in their shaggy-dog quest to recover him, their Deux Stooges double act is pretty much the entire show.
There’s a certain zonked chemistry to their deadbeat deadpan, even in the lulls between major gags. Stretched past an hour, however, their anti-appeal kind of craps itself into a corner — as does the deliberately cruddy filmmaking, with its preponderance of low-res video and herky-jerky editing tricks. To the extent that “Mother Schmuckers” is remembered at all beyond the festival circuit, it will be for the most outrageous pivots of its plotting, which carry the boys through a man-and-pet cult orgy, a grisly shooting incident with a sidewalk vagrant and a beyond-the-pale twist on Cashmere’s prostitution.
Yet the film doesn’t play quite as sensationally as this sounds, in large part because the Guits drop their bombs with more of a flat shrug than a devilish cackle, while there’s an awful lot of dawdling slacker space between them — which is, funnily enough, where “Mother Schmuckers” finds its most satisfying yucks. There’s nothing quite as purely, innocently funny here as the sight of Delmelle and Guit limping through awkward music-video choreography for a less-than-hot track titled “Who Put Me in the Well?” or dumpster-diving for a makeshift, moth-eaten dog costume to crash the aforementioned orgy. Admittedly, you have to be there to get it. Whether you have to be there at all for “Mother Schmuckers,” on the other hand, is very much your call.