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Hipster Holy Grail: Heart of the Beholder (2005)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Heart of the Beholder is an interesting, but bizarrely crafted film.  To call it "uneven" is an understatement.  The pacing is all over the place, the tone shifts rapidly, there are a lot of extraneous scenes, and the dialogue is often hamfisted and over-delivered.  But it's an undeniably interesting story.  At the end of the day, I'm willing to overlook a lot of the flaws and give it a recommendation - especially since you can watch it for (basically) free if you have Amazon Prime.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Family man Mike Howard (Matt Letscher, channeling Aaron Eckhart) is a sorta-down-on-his-luck dude looking for his place in the world.  After much soul-searching and consideration, he decides to take a chance on his interest in movies by opening the first ever video rental store in St. Louis.

(BTW, this movie takes place in St. Louis.  It might be hard for you to notice because there's only about thirty shots of the St. Louis Arch.  I'm pretty sure it's trying to compete with The Room for the record number of establishing shots featuring the same architectural landmark.  But in case you missed it, this movie is in St. Louis.)

Life is good for Mike for awhile... but then he comes head to head with a fundamentalist religious group who is upset that he dares to rent out The Last Temptation of Christ to the public.  After some initial protests fail to make much headway, the leader of the group, Reverend Matthew Brewer (John Prosky), decides to escalate matters.

Y'see, Rev. Brewer has some damning knowledge about the District Attorney, Eric Manion (John Dye).  Manion, while openly a supporter of Brewer's church group, secretly extorts sexual favors from a local madame, Miss Olivia (Priscilla Barnes), and all of the prostitutes working under her.  When Rev. Brewer learns about this, he uses the knowledge to twist Manion's arm into putting serious pressure on Mike by arresting him on obscenity charges.

On top of that, one of the dudes in Brewer's group (Silas Weir Mitchell, again making a tiny appearance in an HHG entry) has been making threats against Mike's young daughter, Molly (Chloe Grace Moretz in one of her first ever film roles).

This is where things start to get a little bit weird and unfocused.  For awhile you might think the movie is going to be either a courtroom thriller or a political drama about the fucked-up morals of the city as Mike is tormented by both Brewer and Manion... but it kind of goes off the rails.  The courtroom / political piece of it gets wrapped up about halfway through.

So what happens in the second half?

Well, you have a few scenes of Mike slowly falling apart as his video stores go out of business and his marriage is strained.  Then Mike goes to play paintball, where he confronts the church group and learns about Manion's indiscretions. Then, apropos of nothing, Mike decides to help set up a sting operation to bring Manion to justice, and the movie ends.

You'll note that Mike does not get his video stores back.  The movie kinda forgets about that.

The second half of the movie, while interesting, doesn't really follow considering Mike's motivation in the first half.  It's like they didn't think anybody would care whether or not the protagonist got back on his feet - only if the villain was knocked off of his.  So any suspense that's built up around Mike's personal life is ignored and then deflated.

This is just one of many strange directorial and plot choices made in HotB.

The Part Where I Complain About Inconsistency and Pacing

I specifically chose to watch Heart of the Beholder this week for two reasons: One is that it is 2015 and I wanted to find something from 2005 that was now eligible under my arbitrary criteria, and the other is that it has a high-ish rating on IMDb.  (Not that IMDb's ratings are much help for me.)  After having seen it, I'm shocked by both of those facts - the movie looks like it was made in 1990 and the rating seems padded.

It's not that it's a bad film.  It just has some serious flaws, most notably with the tone and pacing.  There's so much stuff happening that it's hard to stay focused on any one conflict for very long, and the movie doesn't make it any easier by inserting the occasional tangent.

Let me give you an example.  Well, two, really.

First, the movie opens with about a fifteen minute prologue showing how Mike got the idea to open a video store.  It's a strange sequence - Mike wins a VCR and explains to his wife not only what a VCR is, but why people might want to use it.  He then researches video rentals and explains the process as if it's something the audience wouldn't understand.  (I guess I can appreciate that children today wouldn't be familiar with video stores, but something tells me they could figure it out without a lesson.)

None of this prologue is really necessary.  It's like if you wanted to make a movie about a used car dealer who gets into some trouble with the mob, but you opened with a long expose about how cars are made and what it takes to get approved for a loan.  Nobody cares, guy.  You can just open your movie with Mike being a successful video store owner and then one day a fundie nutbag comes in screaming, "Jesus loves me more!"

But then the prologue has a weird scene that doesn't need to be in the movie.  That's right, even the redundant aside has a redundant aside built into it.

It takes the form of Mike's first customer, Chuck Berry (no kidding).  Mike's lovable-but-actually-pretty-racist cashier thinks Berry is going to rob the store and mugs at the camera for a long time, which I think is meant to be funny but really just comes across as uncomfortable.  Berry robotically explains that he has just purchased a Video Cassette Recorder machine, but he does not have any movies for it... so he asks for "thirty movies for thirty days." Mike comically fills a box with random movies and hands it over, and Berry leaves the movie permanently.

What the fuck was the point of that?!  Did you not think we would understand that Mike had a successful career unless we saw a Little Shop of Horrors-type scene where a cartoon character pops into his store and says, "While I'm here, I might as well rent $2,000 worth of movies!"?

And why would you try to play up internalized racism for a laugh?  And why would you put this scene so close to an extremely gross and sleazy scene of Manion coercing oral sex from Miss Olivia?  You can't have a DA mouth-rape a prostitute and then cut to wacky video store antics two minutes later!  That doesn't work!


Anyway, the whole movie is kind of like that.  The more I think about it, the more I realize that there isn't actually a solid through-line in the whole movie - it's really just a series of crimes and misadventures that are loosely connected by Mike's video store.  The comedy is stilted and hampered by the ugliness, and the ugliness is made comical by overacting and awkward editing.  The end result is an extremely bizarre experience.

And I didn't even get into Michael Dorn's character.

But... it's still a compelling watch.  I think it has to do with it being based on a true story.

The Part Where I Talk About the Director

This film was made by Ken Tipton, a long-time film geek, frequent extra / bit player in Hollywood, stand-in for John Candy, improv comedian, and all around interesting guy.  Tipton based the film on his own real-life experiences as the owner of the first ever video rental store in St. Louis in the early '80s.

I'm told by the production notes (including the movie's official website) that virtually everything in the movie is absolutely true - even down to one of the legitimately funny scenes where a fundie protests that the movie Splash promotes bestiality.  I have no reason to question Tipton's veracity, so I'll take him at his word that the movie is more documentary than fiction.

For that reason, it is difficult to let the movie's flaws get in the way of enjoying the final product. Tipton went through some severe pains to try to defend his business, and I can see why being able to simply tell his story told in such an accessible way would be almost as much a victory as being able to, y'know, actually keep his stores in business.

The sad truth is that there are a lot of dumbasses and crybabies out there who get their way just by being loud and obnoxious.  The fact that they managed to protest a guy into losing his business simply because he was willing to rent a movie is appalling and disgusting.  For whatever missteps the movie takes, it absolutely nails the feeling of impotent frustration and rage that comes with watching injustice unfold, and you absolutely feel for Mike / Ken every step of the way.

It's a sympathetic story about a sympathetic guy, and that's all it really needs to be to keep you engaged.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that you'll get a lot more out of the film if you view it not as a drama, but as a biopic of a dude you probably never heard of.  When you view it as a documentary about the strange life of Ken Tipton, it suddenly becomes a much better movie.

One More Thing

I forgot to mention what may be the best (worst?) scene in the movie.  It's one of those moments that made me wonder whether I enjoyed this movie sincerely or ironically, and I'm still kind of up in the air about it.

I mentioned a long time ago that Silas Weir Mitchell's character threatens Mike's daughter.  This starts with just an anonymous phone call, but then he makes a more physical threat one day in the park.  Molly and her friend are getting their faces painted.  Mitchell approaches Molly and asks, "Do you love Jesus?  Do you want to go see him?"  And Molly nods, "Of course! Jesus is my friend!" Then Mitchell leads her away off screen.

It's actually a pretty creepy moment - Mitchell turns in what is probably the best performance in the whole movie, alternately wringing terror and empathy out of his pitiful character.  But whatever suspense you might feel is immediately transformed into a deep belly laugh when Mike goes to Molly's friend and they have the following exchange (paraphrased slightly):

Mike: Where's Molly?
Friend: She went away with a man.
Mike: A man? What man?  What did he say?
Friend: [Shrugs disinterestedly] I dunno.  Something about Jesus.

In a different movie, this could've been one of the most chilling things I've ever scene, but it plays out more like a scene in an Apatow comedy.

Where You Can Watch

Heart of the Beholder is available on Amazon Instant Video, and if you have a Prime subscription, you can watch it for free.

Update, November 2016: How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

It has less than 300 ratings on IMDb as of today, so it gets an obscurity bonus of 30 cred.  I'll give it half a recommendation bonus, so that's another 15.

It gets some credit for Moretz's film debut, especially since it's such a strange movie for her to have started with, so I'll give it 5 cred just for her.  And while I'm on the topic - the weirdness of it overall has to be worth something.  Let's say another 5 cred.

And then I'm going to give it a huge 15 point bonus since its plot relies so heavily on outdated tech that certain subsets of hipsters are strangely excited about.  I'd insert a snide comment here about how much VHS blows, but we may be at a point where the backlash to the backlash to modern VHS use is now getting backlash itself, and frankly, I don't really care anymore as long as I never have to watch a VHS again. Anyway, let's also go with another 5 cred for being a fictionalized version of the director's life.

That all adds up to 70 hipster cred out of a possible 100.