SXSW 2017: Assholes
I have to preface this review by saying that out of everything I've watched at SXSW, this was the one film I needed to see twice to really capture my thoughts together. That's nothing to say about the quality of director Peter Vack's film Assholes, rather, through most of my first viewing it seemed like an utterly horrible experience. On a second watch, there were shades of deceptive brilliance throughout, but after taking time for reflection, I'm not exactly sure if it amounts to anything.
Adah (Betsey Brown) and Aaron (Jack Dunphy) are two young New Yorkers with substance abuse issues, who become a couple after meeting unexpectedly at their psychiatrist's office. Adah harbours feelings of resentment towards her brother Adam (played by Vack), while Aaron is utterly obsessed with the concept of anal sex. On one outing, Adah and Aaron get loaded on poppers and in a whirlwind drug trip, get married and terrorize various inhabitants of their city, each displaying a crusty infection on their faces from constant oral-based swapping of germs.
Some credit has to be given to Peter Vack and his creative vision - taking common notions of absurdist/cringe comedy, and amplifying it to extreme measures. One sequence features the pair, post-marriage, running through Times Square while screaming at various people and getting in their personal space, not to mention having public (simulated) sex. This portion stands out, not because of its extreme nature, but for being one of the only parts of Assholes which is placed in an external, non-controlled environment, and its hard not to put yourself in the shoes of any bystander caught on film having to see two young people behave so erratically.
We also get a strange second-act detour where a literal demon (Eileen Dietz) expels herself out of Adah's anus following a short scene of the two having private (decidedly non-simulated) sex. The demon then starts to live with them and helps with their schemes, one of which involves Adah plotting to murder her brother while in her manic state. This interweaving of various structures makes Assholes feel like it's trying on different guises, but, as displayed by its finale that takes the form of a parody of a popular drug addiction docuseries, it really has no clear path or sense of direction, it merely seeks to provoke the audience in as many ways as possible.
It's not a surprise at all that writer/director Max Landis was a producer on this, as it seems to be all about pushing boundaries and grabbing attention. Much kudos to Peter Vack and the entire cast/crew for making the kind of art that many others wouldn't even dare to, but Assholes is a very hard film to recommend, and will likely only be embraced by those who are devout fans of uncomfortable situation comedy. Thankfully, it's just over 70 minutes, and if you're able to make it all the way through, you may just want to watch it again (if only to clarify what you just watched).