I always take a deviant interest in films that take jabs at the pretentious and cutthroat underbelly of the soulless machine that is Hollywood...
...Of course, not everyone who works in Hollywood is a materialistic asshole, but there’s certainly no shortage of that crowd. Shane Black’s 2005 Hollywood satire, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang remains one of my favorite films, as it perfectly captures the ugly side of the film business while telling a really fun story. There are other films that have tackled such subject matter, but, in my opinion, Black’s film has been the gold standard. Directors Chris W. Freeman and Spain Willingham, along with writer Drew Fortune, have attempted something similar by exploiting the dark nature of the industry in their new film, Beast Mode.
Starting all the way back as a production assistant on Collateral (2004) and assistant to the director on Troy (2004), Freeman has earned his stripes by working up the Hollywood ladder. Who better to prod and poke at the industry than a guy who’s been there, right? In some ways that’s definitely true, but making a film that’s legitimately funny based around that experience is a tough task.
Beast Mode centers around Breen Nash (C. Thomas Howell), a strait-laced agent who can’t seem to manage the unpredictable and destructive behavior of universally adored movie star, Huckle Saxton (indie favorite James Duvall). On the morning of a very important film pitch meeting, Breen is fraught with anxiety, unsure if the drug and sex addled Saxton will show up on time. Thinking Saxton might still be at the bar, Breen hops in his convertible to pick him up, but accidentally runs him over while backing out, seemingly killing him! In a panic, Breen remembers a janitor who works in their offices who happens to resemble Saxton, though not as pampered and groomed. Breen and his assistant convince the janitor, also played by Duvall, to undergo an extreme makeover so they can shoot Saxton’s next picture. Hollywood beautician and cosmologist Zelda Zine (Leslie Easterbrook) is in possession of a mysterious cream that will cover up the scars of replacement Saxton, but at a heavy price. Scared to lose the film, Breen sees no other alternative. Shortly after use, however, his problems multiply and he endangers everyone around him.
At its heart, Beast Mode is harmless, silly, and sweet. Far too often I see slapstick comedies that rely solely on gross-out humor, celebrity cameos, or pop culture references. This film is irrefutably slapstick, and has a few crude gags involving bodily functions, but it’s never the centerpiece of the comedy. Here, most of the jokes are situational, not unlike a sitcom. The very premise itself comes straight out of an episode of Seinfeld or any other 90’s prime time comedy. I’m not the biggest fan of sitcoms, but I acknowledge them as a harmless way to get a chuckle or two. One scene has the replacement Saxton trying to pass off as the real Saxton while living with the movie star’s wife. She notices that his eyes are clear and angrily asks if he’s trying to get sober, which pokes fun at the normalcy of substance abuse in the industry. There’s plenty of miscommunication scenes like this, and while none of it is ever laugh out loud, they are amusing in the moment.
The leads of Beast Mode are pretty darn good. C. Thomas Howell first comes across as unlikable, but grows on you quickly. It’s hard not to find Breen and his dog wearing matching pajamas downright adorable. His character is just about as corrupt as everyone else, but the film makes it a point to make him likable. I’ve always respected Duvall as an actor. I first noticed him several decades ago in Independence Day (1996) and have since seen him pop up in a plethora of diverse projects. One look at his IMDB and you’ll be blown away by the guy’s work ethic. I wouldn’t say his role as Saxton is challenging, but he does a great job playing two characters and it’s evident he was having fun while doing it. Every character is pretty hammed up and over-the-top, and it fits the tone of the film perfectly.
It’s not necessarily a stretch to include horror when defining this film, but if you’re looking for a blood-soaked massacre against Hollywood, you’re going to be disappointed. Most of the horror elements don’t come into play until about halfway through, when the mysterious cream rears its ugly head of side effects. Even then, there’s not a lot of gore. There are some pretty cool looking creature effects but it’s mostly all played for laughs. I don’t have a problem with any of this though, because that’s not really what the film is about. Sure, the plot involves murder, death, disfigurement, and transformations, but it’s really the characters and the trouble they get into that dominates the film. The slapstick humor is fun and the film has a feel-good quality to it, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how much more they could have done with the industry jokes. I’m assuming they didn’t go too deep with the self-referential industry jokes so they wouldn’t alienate too many people who aren’t familiar with that world. Still, I wish they could have straddled both worlds of inside jokes and jokes that don’t require film knowledge prerequisites.
Beast Mode isn’t anything extraordinarily clever and it doesn’t contain the kind of humor that sticks with you, but it isn’t without its charms. What I appreciate about the film most is its lack of ultra cynicism. It’s cynical in that it pokes fun at Hollywood’s perversities, but Beast Mode manages to be a feel-good comedy with heart at the same time. I find that incredibly refreshing in a cinematic climate of high cynicism. I would recommend this as a film to be watched after a long day of adulting. It’s light-hearted, non-demanding, and completely watchable.
Beast Mode comes to DVD and Digital from Devilworks December 1st.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth