Call Me Lucky spends a lot of time explaining how provocative it is. In its most explicit evocation, Barry Crimmins, the subject of director Bobcat Goldthwait’s first foray into documentary filmmaking, explains how the United States, as a country, “sucks in 2004.” He follows it up with, “Let’s see if that makes the cut. If it does, you’re watching a good movie.” Though Crimmins says it, Goldthwait capitalizes on the assertion as a badge of honor, legitimating his own documentary through the sure-handed polemics of a well-respected comic’s comic. After all, Goldthwait’s previous films, like World’s Greatest Dad and God Bless America, both proudly display their disdain for mass culture, particularly the latter, which literally and rather unironically turns a mismatched pair into a gun-wielding vigilante duo who hunt and kill philistines.
As presented here, one could easily imagine Crimmins being a fan of those films purely on principle. Voraciously opposed to pundit pacifiers who attempt to shrink dynamic bureaucratic issues into digestible forms, Crimmins is a wily, unstoppable force within comedic and political circles, whose unforgettable presence on stage as a stand-up comic during the ’80s and running for office in Boston during the ’90s serves much of the film’s B-roll footage. The talking heads, ranging from Margaret Cho to Marc Maron to Goldthwait himself, are abundant and amusing, if dubiously insightful. When a string of attempts to explain Crimmins’s demeanor concludes with one friend saying he seemed like a combination of Noam Chomsky and Bluto, the supplementary cartoon footage of Bluto strutting down a street reveals less a stream of consciousness mode than a peppy attempt to salvage the proceedings from becoming a “remember when” highlight reel.
At least, that’s until the film’s midway point, where a portraiture of one of American stand-up’s undervalued brethren shifts focus to Crimmins’s personal life, particularly his childhood, where he was repeatedly raped in his home by a man related to his frequent babysitter. Goldthwait structures this revelation as a bombshell, intending its emergence to shed light on the “anger-fueled sets” that litter the film’s first half. As comedian Steven Wright says at one point just before the narrative shift, Barry “would just go off,” and it’s Goldthwait’s intent to suggest a one-to-one correlation between Crimmins’s previously inexplicable anger and his resultant PTSD following years of repressing prior sexual abuse.
Such a calculated move fails Call Me Lucky, since its supposed desire to explain Crimmins’s life story chronologically is a de facto suppression of essential information that, to more honestly serve the film’s comprehensive aims, needs to be stated at the fore. As the beer-swilling, short-fused wild man morphs into a wounded, outspoken survivor intent upon reforming child pornography laws to ensure a no-tolerance policy for materials that should be flatly considered “crime evidence,” Goldthwait’s evidentiary bridge from one phase to the next is too transparent in its desire to establish Crimmins’s “proto-Bill Maher/Jon Stewart” credentials as a necessary prerequisite for grappling with his victim status.
When Call Me Lucky actually accompanies Crimmins to revisit the basement where he was raped, the resultant gawking and sense of forced intervention lays bare how ill-equipped Goldthwait is to make poignant sense of these difficult revelations, much less reconcile Crimmins’s complexities as a presence and thinker. Any comedian who would say, “I’m whatever threatens you. I’m a communist with AIDS and I bite,” deserves a film as equally intent on visualizing actual hostility and danger, but Goldthwait’s hand too nervously tempers Crimmins’s outré tactics as kooky showmanship bred from unimaginable trauma.