A few years ago, local documentary doyenne Melody Gilbert made a film called Whole that unearthed one of the oddest of all subcultures—able-bodied folks who wanted to be amputees. The oxymoronic title telegraphed their dicey predicament. Only by cutting off or otherwise disabling one of their own limbs could they truly feel complete.
Gilbert’s film was a no-frills exploration of a clinically recognized disorder and her subjects an otherwise unremarkable group who happened to draw a crappy number in the genetic lottery. Their bizarre predilection didn’t seem nearly so grotesque when it was explained in the familiar psychological lexicon of gender identity and body dysmorphic issues. If anything, Gilbert’s integrity as a journalist (and the constraints of her budget) made for an unexpectedly respectful, restrained film. The subject screamed for a hyperstylized Errol Morris treatment.
I shouldn’t be surprised then that a young screenwriter has now done for body integrity identity disorder what David Cronenberg did for the kinky car crash fetishists of Crash —made something inherently weird and dramatic into a muddled bore. Writer/director Carlos Brooks uses wannabe paraplegics as the dramatic hook (or at least the marketing peg) of his debut feature Quid Pro Quo. It’s a confused little movie that’s part thriller, part co-dependent romance, and part simple-minded riff on the search for authenticity and self-love—but not nearly enough of a comic romp to be enjoyed as cult trash.
Our wheelchair-bound protagonist (Nick Stahl) is a public radio reporter named Isaac Knot (say that fast several times) paralyzed from a childhood car accident that the movie flashes back to several times to let us know that it’s I-M-P-O-R-T-A-N-T. Following up on a story lead about a wannabe amputee, Isaac meets able-bodied restoration artist Fiona (Vera Farmiga) who wastes no time in stripping to a bustier and leg braces and letting Isaac know that she wants to be just like him. As in…confined to a chair. A quickie romance ensues as Fiona moves out of the closet with her obsession and into a wheelchair, and Isaac buys a pair of shoes that seem to magically cure his paralysis.
The mutually beneficial deal winked at by the title will spoil this happy coupling and reveal the magic shoes for what they really are. It will also confirm why Brooks has styled and lit every scene like it was a forties noir. Confirm, I said, not excuse.
There is a considerable disconnect between the script’s facile preoccupation with identity (“normal is a setting on a washing machine”) and its detective fiction guise. Neither feels true. Nor does Isaac’s instant attraction to Fiona whose wild-eyed vamping doesn’t exactly disguise the cauldron of mental health issues bubbling beneath the surface.
The most enjoyable part of last night’s Walker Art Center sneak preview was the discussion afterwards with producer Sarah Pillsbury whose eighties and nineties film credits are formidable (Desperately Seeking Susan, River’s Edge, Eight Men Out, And the Band Played On) but probably not as familiar as her Minnesota milling dynasty. The Minnesota-raised daughter of former Republican state senator George Pillsbury lives mostly in California and is a liberal philanthropist/activist for social justice and voter participation issues. Quid Pro Quo, which premiered at Sundance, is her return to feature film producing after a seven-year hiatus.
Wearing a “Vote November 4th” T-shirt and removing her sandals for the audience Q&A, Pillsbury acknowledged the film’s niche appeal (“I think we’ll offend people”) and her disappointment with the very limited theatrical release planned by Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures: “Right now it’s probably the most limited release plan of any movie I’ve been involved in.”
Oh, but there’s always DVD. And for this film, she confirmed, an excerpt from Whole will be one of the DVD extras. Gilbert’s documentary may be the necessary salve to cut Quid Pro Quo’s uniquely alienating brand of weirdness. Against the much more nuanced true story, Brooks’ dull detective story will be exposed for the phony that it is.