Why get a job when you don’t need one? Why read the newspaper when it’s only filled with depressing stories? Why do anything at all if it’s not for the sake of fun and pleasure? Such are the questions that arise in American Animal, the wonderfully weird debut feature film from writer-director-editor-coster Matt D’Elia, when James (Brendan Fletcher) does the unthinkable and gets a job, much to the chagrin of his roommate and partner in hedonism, Jimmy (D’Elia).
The catch is that James and Jimmy, both in their early twenties, have been living off of family wealth; neither needs a job. So, according to Jimmy, James’s act completely betrays the life of unbridled freedom they’ve built together. And when Jimmy and James’s two friends, both named Angela (Mircea Monroe and Angela Sarafyan), come over to their Los Angeles loft for a night of drugs and board games, we get to see exactly what that life is like: something like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf mixed with an episode of Girls filtered through countless layers of Beckett and Ionesco.
Jimmy and James and Angela and Angela stay up late drinking, getting high, playing Xbox, but most of all occupying space in the weird alternate universe that is Jimmy’s life. Jimmy is ill (terminally, it is implied, though the story is based partly on two years D’Elia spent sick and bedridden in his early twenties). He makes up words; he goes from wearing only his bright pink briefs to full on Napoleonic costumes; at different points in the film, he claims to be Serpico and Dean Martin; and he’s absolutely unapologetic about refusing to get a job, never leaving the house, and only doing things he finds fun all day, mostly sex, marijuana, and playing pretend.
D’Elia’s performance as Jimmy is often exaggerated, but it also makes an effort to portray the sadness of Jimmy’s situation, the gut-level appeal of his worldview (“Why on the name of this earth would I not put on the Ritz, when I can put on the Ritz?”), and also his hypocrisy. For in his anger about James’s new job, which is actually a paid internship at HarperCollins, Jimmy denies James the thing he most holds dear—the permission to act purely for the sake of self-satisfaction.
American Animal never leaves the confines of the apartment, a high-ceilinged loft space filled with a Wes Anderson-like palette: all blues, pinks, and yellows. The color scheme keeps things interesting visually, as does the use of jump cuts and other stylistic irregularities that, at first, play up the group’s monotonous activities and by the end make the apartment feel like a timeless vacuum where the sun will only rise once the drama has played out.
It’s all part of the bizarre and exhausting ride that is living in Jimmy’s world, and American Animal, which premiered in 2011 at South by Southwest, does not hold back in sharing it. The movie does overplay at times—about an hour in, the film’s stage play set-up shows off its worst side as we watch a whole scene of Jimmy and James yelling at each other about their motivations. But the film also hits several unexpectedly fantastic notes in the process.
“I just wish you guys would give my world a chance,” Jimmy pleads with the others halfway through the film. It’s worth you doing so too, so long as you come with an open mind and a relish for the absurd.
Opens May 18