Melvin Van Peebles has handmade a bildungsroman that isn’t merely energetic enough to be called “spry” work for a 75-year-old independent filmmaking legend; Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha is downright effervescent. Celebrated for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Story of a Three-Day Pass, the veteran autodidact has shot a bouncy shadow play with an HD cam, utilizing animation, stock footage, irises, wipes, multi-exposures, split screens, and every other effect in the basic digital book. A knowing, picaresque folktale shot with few attempts to literally represent period (the streets of New York are contemporarily as is, and one character wears a “BAADASSSSS” T-shirt), Mutha has Van Peebles narrating and playing a loose version of himself from age 10 to adulthood, garish in sweater vests, shiny belt buckles, and fiery red pants, an old man re-inhabiting and mythologizing his young life like a nearly-one-man production of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. (There is a large cast in small roles, from son Mario to ‘60s satirist Paul Krassner, but they’re essentially accessories.)
Van Peebles’s Candide figure is a Chicago boy who can no longer salve his “itchy feet” with library travel books and sets out hitchhiking for the Gulf of Mexico and, after fleeing a gangland execution of an obliging trucker, ends up swimming down the Hudson to New York, finding eventual but oft postponed true love with Harlem choirgirl Rita—whose wholesome domesticity, complete with burnt cookies, revives his wanderlust. In the Merchant Marine, his ladykilling flourishes: “I opened every bar and every pair of legs from here to Kyoto.” His antics in saving a stash of cash by following a shipmate’s industrious servicing old ladies in every port is typical of Van Peebles’s wry, earthy yarn-spinning. Scored with his own gospel/blues/jazz/funk instrumentals and songs based on a Broadway-mounted play of his own from the early ‘80s, it’s Van Peebles’s equivalent of the quaint, crazed autobiographical fables of Guy Maddin, a tall tale featuring a long-buried cashbox, fateful encounters with a bloody African dictator and a jungle gorilla in heat, and the explosive defeat of pirates on the high seas. Even if it doesn’t quite sustain its spell for the full 99 minutes, it’s an infectious autumnal work brimming with wit and love of life.