“American Animal” is a work of astonishing ego. It was written, directed, and edited by 27-year-old Matt D’Elia, his feature-film debut. D’Elia is also the film’s star, though he’s never acted before. Oh, and he’s naked a lot of the time. A man who will cast himself as the frequently nude main character in a movie which he will also write, direct, and edit is a man brimming with confidence, or possibly foolishness, or possibly both. If the movie doesn’t work, it’s going to be nobody’s fault but Matt D’Elia’s.
Good news: It works. Or it works for me, anyway. All movie reviews are subjective, of course, but it seems important to point it out specifically in this case. D’Elia’s character is such an oddball that you’ll either find him fascinating or profoundly irritating, and your enjoyment of the film will depend entirely on that.
D’Elia plays Jimmy, a skinny, bearded layabout who is dying of something. The film opens with a montage of Jimmy taking a dozen prescriptions, all of it shot and edited artfully and set to a Beethoven composition. Jimmy then goes about his daily routine, which involves hanging around the apartment in his underwear and pestering his best friend and roommate, James (Brendan Fletcher). Both young men have rich parents and don’t need to work, but James — whose long-suffering and patience with Jimmy is wearing thin — has at least tried to maintain the semblance of a normal grown-up life. Jimmy has not.
They are visited by two women of their acquaintance, Blonde Angela (Mircea Monroe) and Not Blonde Angela (Angela Sarafyan), who hang around the house with the boys, smoking pot and failing to communicate. The dialogue-heavy screenplay is filled with characters saying “What?” and repeating themselves, a highly theatrical style that D’Elia and his small cast translate to film with minimal awkwardness. (The filmmaker cites “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” as one of his influences, and it shows.)
The conflict arises when Jimmy discovers that James has gotten a job, a betrayal of everything Jimmy stands for, i.e., prolonged adolescence. Already a bit of a kook, Jimmy now descends into deeper weirdness and mania while the film, already a bit of a fever dream, becomes more cerebral. Jimmy’s hedonistic worldview is expressed in several long speeches, passionately delivered by D’Elia, that walk the line between nuttiness and lucidity. Like many polarizing movie characters (and real-life people, for that matter), Jimmy is either very, very crazy or very, very sane.
Either way, he’s riveting to watch. He likes to repeat words; he likes to have nonsense conversations; he always seems to be performing in a show that only he can see. You could argue that he’s made entirely of character tics, that he’s nothing like a real person. For me, that’s part of the appeal. He’s a wholly original figure, not found in nature — but at the same time, he’s just reminiscent enough of real-life screwballs I’ve encountered to seem like he could exist.
The other three cast members offer strong support, neither stealing focus from D’Elia nor being entirely overshadowed by him. Still, it’s basically The Matt D’Elia Show, a peculiar film that takes risks and generally succeeds. Jimmy — and by extension the film — is funny, pathetic, and maddening, and eerily resonant for viewers of his generation.
B+ (1 hr., 35 min.; )