What Is It?

Probably the most representative scene in Crispin Glover’s “What Is It?” is the one in which a nude woman wearing a monkey mask brings a watermelon to a naked cerebral palsy-stricken man who is sleeping on a clamshell. That wild, random confluence of images is the film’s area of expertise. It’s weirdness for weirdness’ sake, and while I disagree fundamentally with a film that has no purpose other than to make you go “huh … that was odd,” I do concede that most of the weirdness in this case is at least interesting weirdness.

Glover, best known to many audiences as George McFly in the “Back to the Future” films, has an offscreen history of being a strange, unpredictable man, dating back to his mid-’80s appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman” in which he so unnerved Dave that the host walked off the set of his own show. Glover remains deceptively calm and coolly handsome; I noticed in my brief encounter with him at the Sundance Film Festival, where his film premiered, that he is so quietly likable that he’s either the last person you’d expect to be insane, or the first.

“What Is It?” certainly does not mark a departure for Glover. It is a strange, non-narrative film in which most of the actors are mentally disabled non-professionals, and in which snails are mutilated regularly.

I would tell you what the movie is about, except I don’t know. Instead, I will tell you some of the things that happen. Bear in mind that, despite having overlapping characters and settings, few of these events actually seem to have anything to do with each other.

A man with Down syndrome smashes a snail, at which point another snail arrives and (in the voice of Fairuza Balk) despairs over the death of her fellow gastropod. (It is unclear whether the snails were acquainted or whether the second one’s anguish is merely general.) Then Crispin Glover himself appears as a kingly fellow in some kind of fantasy underworld, possibly as the conscience or inner psyche of the snail-killer. Glover has a minstrel. Glover plays a record that is very, very racist. Then there is a man in blackface who wants to be an invertebrate, and to that end injects himself with snail juice. Then a praying mantis kills a snail and a retarded person.

OK, I have to stop there. The fact that I just wrote “Then a praying mantis kills a snail and a retarded person” is evidence enough that no description of the film will suffice.

To determine whether it’s a “good” film, I have to look at what it was trying to do, and examine whether it accomplished it. Glover clearly doesn’t expect us to know what the movie means. My guess is that he wanted to experiment with film structures, narrative styles and imagery, and to make us go, “huh … that was odd.” It works — I mean, I sure did think it was odd. I wouldn’t urge anyone to see it, but I think some hardcore film buffs might find it amusing.

C (1 hr., 12 min.; Not Rated, probably NC-17 for some weird nudity and sexuality -- not erotic, but involving naked parts, so there you go.)