Directed by Penny Lane
Opens June 22 at Film Forum
Penny Lane’s Nuts! tells a story so outrageous that I wondered at times if it were a mockumentary. In fact, Lane’s structure sets out to encourage her spectator to question the truth of her storytelling: Nuts! is a documentary, in which more than half of the footage is animated, that turns into a courtroom drama. It takes the uplifting story of success and triumph over adversity epitomized by Hollywood films like David O. Russell’s Joy and shows the B.S. upon which they’re built.
Nuts! opens with 1920s country doctor John R. Brinkley having a revelation that goat testicle glands, transplanted into the human scrotum, could serve as a proto-Viagra. His business becomes quite successful. He also establishes a popular radio station, which broadcasts country music and a medical advice show. The loss of his Kansas medical license and federal broadcasting license doesn’t stop him; instead, he just moves to the Texas/Mexico border and keeps going. But a court case threatens to put him out of business for good.
Like many documentaries, Nuts! relies on archival footage—including Brinkley’s home movies—and present-day interviews with historians and scholars. However, it leans even more heavily on animation. Unusually, each section of the film is drawn by a different animator, giving Nuts! quite a varied look. (That said, it relies too heavily on the repeated image of two goats having sex in the background for a cheap laugh.) The chapter headings are taken from a biography of Brinkley, but our narrator turns out to be quite unreliable. Brinkley’s con job extends to the audience. Lane has stated that she wants the spectator to become more critical about the supposed truth offered by documentaries. Her first feature, Our Nixon, was a bit too indulgent towards its subject. Nuts! strikes a fine balance between affection and critique. It respects a good con but shows the wasted lives and dollars Brinkley left in his wake.