Penn Jillette’s Director’s Cut (Review)

You may or may not remember back in 2013 Penn JIllette and director Adam Rifkin announced their plans to ‘Make Penn Bad’ and produce his thriller screenplay. By November 2013, they had successfully crowdfunded their film to the tune of 1.1 million dollars[2]Of course, I sincerely doubt that covered all the costs of making the film, which looks pretty fucking good, aside from the moments when it’s not supposed to. But we’ll get into that.

According to IMDB it’s actual budget was over 5 million

Full disclosure: I know Penn, and he knows me. I should hope so, I’ve been nearly naked on stage with him a few times (he had clothes on). Also, I’m a fan of Penn’s, and have been for a very long time[3].

Penn grabs my crotch as we share a moment with my Stripper Mate fo’ Life Gabriel Shalless
I really need to start working out again.


In any case, Director’s Cut is good… it’s uh… Good. It’s not bad. In fact, it’s good.

Well, thank you for reading, remember to subscribe and all the other ubiquitous stuff.

OK, OK, I suppose you want a few nuanced opinions on the matter[4].

Well, as I already said; it is good. In fact, on a purely conceptual level, it’s fucking genius! It’s one of those ideas where when you first hear about it, you’re like “Duh! Why the fuck has no one thought of that before?! A director’s commentary and/or cut that tells a different narrative than the actual film that is being commented on. Fucking, YES!!!”

I do realize that this is typically not the kind of project that you’re ‘supposed to do’; a movie about the movies, but Penn’s concept uses the perspective of an outsider who desperately wants to be in the movies, which is basically everyone, so it’s perfect.

I was really excited about this project. I even read part of the screenplay when they were doing their fundraiser, which may have altered a few of my expectations[5]But I’m pretty sure in a couple instances, Mr. Jillette and Mr. Rifkin just fell short of their intentions. For example, in the screenplay there’s a note that the film within the film will be a cop movie that’s “done earnestly. Not camp at all.”

This isn’t the case. I suspect that the cast and crew may have thought they were doing a sincere job with it, just like Al Jolson may have thought that he was doing a sincere homage to the talented black people he knew. I will say the cinematographer sure as hell was. Good job, Scott Winig! (If IMDB is to be believed) But the film within a film really came off as campy. 
What you see on screen is really talented old school pros, having fun by pretending to be shitty actors in a shitty cop movie. 

See, that’s the problem that a lot of people fall into when they are doing something comedic, satirical, or tongue in cheek; they don’t take it seriously, and that reads on screen. If you want a joke to truly pay off, you need a director and performers who are going to commit, and you definitely had the right cast. I mean, Harry Hamlin?! The man was in Clash of the Titans for God’s sake[6].

There is one exception to this, and it’s pretty ironic since his role was extremely over the top, and he’s definitely not known to be an actor. Teller’s performance is downright stunning. You may not notice it at first because he’s only on screen for like 3 minutes, and, again, it’s a very over the top character, but god damn that mother fucker commits.
I say this with no hesitation: Teller gave the best performance of the movie. You can actually see most of his performance on the Director’s Cut Youtube channel.

And, as Teller actually told me with words after the screening, the writing for his scene was perfect. We knew everything about this man’s character, his motivation, even his moral compass within 60 seconds. Penn fuckin’ nailed that scene, and, clearly, understood that character.

Sadly, he did not put nearly as much thought or care into the main character of the movie, the one he plays; the ‘director’. It’s a very shallow and cyclical character.
He’s a character who dresses and acts weird. Why?
– Because he’s weird!
His character stalks an actor who he’s in love with. Why?
– Because he loves her.
He has poor social skills. Why?
– Because he doesn’t have any friends.
I’m not asking for a character backstory or anything; a fully realized character doesn’t even need one. A good villain is often better without too much exposition. But we, as the audience need to believe that we know something about this character, even if it’s just his intentions or instincts. ‘Weird with a PG level of creepy’ isn’t a fully realized character; it’s affected and stagy.
As Penn’s character says in the screenplay; “the better the villain, the better the movie.” This movie didn’t have a good villain.

It also didn’t have a villain with a story arch. I mean, the entire plot and very concept of the film is built around this character, and he is the same from beginning, middle, to end. Nothing that actually happens to him seems to affect his weird and oddly enthusiastic demeanor. He doesn’t appear to have any ‘triggers’ or weaknesses that have any effect on the actual story. Our main character literally has no stakes[7]!

Maybe Penn liked the idea of a bad guy who was perfectly content to be his weird self regardless of circumstance. Maybe he thought his character was an ‘unshakable villain’; instead, it just comes off Magoo. And this could have sincerely paid off as well, if, for example, after we watch Magoo blindly bumble through most of the obstacles, we learn that his only solution to complete the film is to create a life size stop motion puppet out of Missi Pyle’s body parts… or whatever! We needed something that was a genuine revelation.

Sure, kidnapping is a very big deal in real life, but we’re so desensitized to hostage situations in movies that it’s usually a pivotal plot point in half of the family friendly movies ever made[8].

So there was no revelation. This movie was genuinely toothless. There were a couple moments of mild discomfort. Without giving away any details, because the details don’t actually matter, this had a very quirky and cute ending. 
It’s the kind of ending that you would choose to attach to this kind of plot if you were doing a short film because the audience wouldn’t have time to fully believe or invest in your world, so you can’t ask them to go to any truly horrific places with you, and expect that journey have a genuine impact[9].
But fellas, you had us for 90 minutes. We were there! We were invested! We were waiting for you to go for the gusto. Whatever that turned out to be. I mean, this is an original idea, and you got there first, right? Imagine if Blair Witch had ended with the kids realizing that they were being pranked, and then they get picked up by their moms and dads.
Even forgetting Blair Witch, we live in a post-RedLetterMedia/YouSuckAtPhotoshop world! You need to take the gloves off, especially if you have a genuinely unique idea.

If you get somewhere first, you don’t pose for an ironic selfie. You climb on top, and shove your flag in that fucking mountain. Come on, guys. You know this[10]!

I don’t know. Maybe they just didn’t want to take it to that next harsh level. And ‘Make Penn Bad is a lot catchier than Make Penn a Weird and Oddly Loveable Antagonist. I mean, Penn is a family man, and this does come off less like a scary story told by your best friend, and more like a mildly dirty joke told by your dad or uncle.
Sadly, it could have been a much funnier joke, had they committed to the setup.
In an interview, Penn said I’m always interested in how things that we trust automatically can be used against us. I mean, that’s what magic is, really. It’s finding a way to lie to yourself. A director’s commentary seemed like the perfect way to kind of get people to be betrayed. With a director’s commentary, it’s a different kind of trust, but it’s still a kind of artistic trust. What if the person talking to you doesn’t know what the fuck they’re doing?”

Fascinating, right? I wanna be artistically lulled into a false sense of security by a guy who might be taking me to a place I didn’t want to go.
Well, forget it. As soon as the movie starts rolling, they give away the entire plot. Not that this project has been kept under tight wrap or anything, but I wanted to see a gradual transition. Instead, the entire plot/joke/concept is telescoped to us within the first 30 seconds. So there was no genuine setup and therefore no good payoff[11].

Everything was given away upfront, which means we were, whether intentional or not, treated like rubes. But that is one of the great dilemmas: Is it better to treat your audience like morons or create something enigmatic that risks making your audience feel like morons? I mean, no creator wants to do either, but you can’t always tell how things are going to come off. And to Penn and Adam’s credit; I never once felt dumb or lost while watching their potentially convoluted film. So that’s good. And again, it was good… It was… Let’s call it an interesting exercise in filmmaking; one that I’m sure a lot of would be filmmakers would enjoy seeing if only to realize the potential of such a work of art.

Speaking of which, check out this lovely poster signed by Penn and Adam at the screening! Which you can now find on ebay. So if you want this poster, and you want to help support my channel, check it out[12].

Thank you for watching.

[1] OK, hold up. Before we get started, I’m John Rael. That’s also me in the video. I just wanted to take this opportunity to add a little more insight throughout the original review that I filmed, and the review making process in general. I hope you enjoy. Let’s continue

[2] You notice how I mention 2013 a couple of times? Yeah, that’s me trying not to just come out and say that it took these guys 4 ½ years to make and officially release their film, which is fine and well; especially when we’re talking about narrative film (shit takes forever), but somehow, at the end of 2013, they were under the impression that they’d have a released film by 2014. What gave them that idea? I could understand if they were a couple kids fresh out of film school, but these are people deeply involved in the industry. What the fuck were they thinking?!

[3] Yeah, that’s my convoluted way of saying that we’re not friends. Not in a bad way or anything. I like him as a person, and he gives a friendly “hey, John” everytime he sees me. Though, I have, on occasion, used Penn & Teller’s Bullshit as examples of fallacious reasoning for the Michael Shermer webseries I produce, so you probably wouldn’t describe me as a ‘loyal fan boy’ either, which, I think, earns me the begrudging respect of many of my non-friends. Just ask Phil Plait

Phil Plait Loves Me!

[4] I hate that shit. The fake ‘ending’ of a video. Especially nowadays. We can all see the timebar. No one is fooled or amused by this shit. I suppose it’s a passive aggressive way of demonstrating to the audience that if a review was just nice and casual then there would be very little to say, so, hopefully, anyone who might instinctively object to harsh criticisms, will no longer have that instinct; ‘disarming’?, I guess. And it’s less condescending than this explanation… but is being patronizing really better than being condescending? In person, no; on camera… maybe?

[5] For the record, I was really disappointed that they didn’t get Rob Morrow involved, but that’s just because I’m obsessed with Northern Exposure

[6] Yeah, I don’t know why I said that. I mean, sure, I like Clash of the Titans, and I like Harry Hamlin, but no actor is ever going to watch Clash of the Titans, and say “I want to play a role that will show that kind of range.” In fairness, range isn’t really something that Harry Hamlin has, but he plays his one note like a fucking boss, and I’m not being facetious; did you see Veronica Mars or Mad Men? Nuff said

[7] *Figuratively. Jesus Christ

[8] Holy shit! I just randomly thought of my five favorite films from last year, and every. Single. One of them had some form of kidnapping or hostage element. This is kind of blowing my mind.

[9] I think I ramble too much sometimes; I mean, is there anyone watching this who gives a shit about the differences between the hypothetical effects and allowances of short vs long form narrative?!

[10] See, right there I’m doing the whole ‘jovial/encouraging’ thing, but what the fuck am I encouraging? I mean, the movie is done; the die is cast. Penn and Adam already politely tiptoed over the finish line of originality.

I guess, I’m just trying to avoid calling them “cowards,” which wouldn’t be entirely fair since film is, obviously, a collaborative medium, and things change; badass intentions get dulled. For instance, I know that they recast their leading lady at least once.

I can relate to how that might temper some of your harsher choices. If one of my comedic buddies wasn’t around, and I had to go with a new person, I might tone down some of my content. I’ve definitely done that at least once in the past. I just hope that I wouldn’t have to do that if I was about to Edmund Hillary some shit, but ‘candy and nuts’ right?

[11] I’ll tell you one of the ways they did this was with those obnoxious scribbled on titles that are supposed to ‘read’ as amateur, but anyone who has spent any amount of time with graphics software, which is literally everyone who owns a computer, knows that it’s actually more difficult to produce crap like that than adding regular titles.

I know it sounds like a minor point, but the whole manipulated title sequence could have been a cool Easter egg or plot device for those savvy enough to notice the difference in fonts and shadow effects or whatever. Especially if those added effects start to look lamer and more homemade as our protagonist has to keep downgrading his editing system because of his changing circumstances, thus helping to tell the fucking story.

[12] Yup. This is shaping up to be a slow summer, and with youtube’s ad revenue roulette system I can no longer count on my hard work having any direct payout, which is fine; you don’t get into filmmaking because you want job security. Besides, if a couple rich libertarians can ask for free handouts with the help of Donald Trump, I guess I can sell a material possession without trying to justify it.