A friend landing a job in our current economy is for most people a cause for celebration. Not so in American Animal, a colorful, bold, and nihilistic film in which the bookish James (Brendan Fletcher) guiltily hides his good news from his roommate, the porn-watching Jimmy (writer-director Matt D’Elia), because in the privileged world that these “spoiled brats” inhabit, they don’t need jobs and reject the conformity that comes with them, preferring instead, as the story begins, to sleep in and invite girls over for a night of drugs and casual sex. As their night unfolds, tensions mount between the somewhat one-dimensional characters; James now has his sights set on adulthood, and Jimmy, who has a terminal illness, is going off the rails, increasingly becoming disconnected from reality, choosing to disregard social rules and to imagine he’s Dean Martin, or one of many other movie stars whose names rapidly roll off his tongue.
D’Elia proves nearly as capable as multi-hyphenate Lena Dunham first did with her head-turning Tiny Furniture. Both American Animal and Tiny Furniture have the same feeling of being necessary digital creations, personal but crafted (or even fictionalized) in such a way that they could be compared to an over-sharer’s embellished status updates. But unlike Aura’s naturalism in Tiny Furniture, Jimmy, as he’s not afraid to spell out for us, is the synthetic creation of other memorable movie characters. D’Elia’s ability to suggest everyone from Travis Bickle and Jack Torrance to Daniel Plainview and Patrick Bateman is as show-stopping as his character is frightening; his shape-shifting performance attests to the way American Animal, like The Color Wheel, is the product of a generation that’s probably seen more movies than any other.
American Animal may be baked with the same ingredients that come in your standard mumblecore starter kit: a handful of actors (prominently including its sometimes nude creator), little storyline, and a location or two. But because of D’Elia’s indebtedness to other movies, the film follows a different recipe altogether. The result is a chamber drama that, though confined to a single setting, is cinematically ambitious enough to (mostly) pull-off its Kubrickian zooms and brilliant Almodóvar-like color schemes; the film feels too mannered at times, but it brings what feels like a stage production to visual life. And though it’s still miles from being as verbally eloquent as Carnage or Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, American Animal follows in their footsteps, under the influence, so to speak, by the solipsism of Vincent Gallo, King of Comedy‘s darkly humorous take on celebrity worship, and not just Bret Easton Ellis’s depictions of the depravity of spoiled youth, but his staggering character study of deranged inner chaos in American Psycho.
When American Animal crescendos at the end of the characters’ long night (they even decide to celebrate Christmas), the dialogue transforms from near-gibberish to propulsive and articulate. Jimmy, in his American Apparel underwear, explains his bizarre behavior by way of his selfish and amoral worldview; he sees himself in the next phase of humankind’s evolution, set to safely take place within the confines of his loft, fueled by movies and prescription drugs and funded by his father’s money. If this isn’t all a societal nightmare, it’s some kind of partially autobiographical commentary on runaway hipsterism and the potentially dangerous disconnection created by living vicariously through copious doses of media. But it’s D’Elia’s oversized, fun, and creepy performance as Jimmy that keeps us on our toes as much as Jimmy keeps his guests on eggshells, and has us anticipating what’s in the cards for these characters and this talented writer-director.