Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Review: "Mope"

"I suck at the thing I love to do!"

Am I a mope?

Are you?

Are most of us?

A mope, as used in the context of the film "Mope," is a low-level pornography actor. These aren't the horizontally gifted guys having improbable sex with three women at once. They're the hangers-on, the wannabes, the extras you glimpse in the background of a group scene. They do the depraved stuff others won't touch. Often they literally act as janitors, cleaning up the leavings after name porn stars have... plied their trade.

In other words, they're the bottom-feeders of an industry that was already a cellar-dweller in the esteem of polite society.

But really, you can apply the term to most any profession. A mope is someone waiting for the big break that's never going to come. Maybe they're unlucky. Maybe they're stuck in the wrong place or time. Maybe they just lack talent and are blind to its absence.

We've all encountered mopes in our workplace. They have lots of passion but not much ability. Worse, they don't seem to learn from their mistakes or grow in their capabilities. Everyone chuckles and shakes their head when they pass, wishing someone would tell them the truth, not wanting to be the one who does.

The movie starts out as a plucky comedy that slowly, gradually slides into deepening blackness. It's about two mopes who dream of making it big in the porn world, and are the only ones who can't see it's never going to happen. One acts erratically and can't even bother to shower. The other... well, there's a scene where he humorously places part of his anatomy in a hot dog bun, and half of it remains just bread.

But they really, really love porn. And they truly think that's enough.

I have to say, "Mope" isn't particularly interesting or good. It takes a challenging concept and does all the obvious things you could do with it, then tries to go all "Taxi Driver" in the last act, unconvincingly.

It raises a lot of uncomfortable questions, though. Why do some people make it and others don't? We've all seen individuals (we think) less talented than ourselves rise faster and further in our chosen profession, and wonder why. We put our heads down and grind, believing that if we work hard enough and yield our pound of flesh we'll eventually reach our goals. Because that's what we've been taught, right?

"Follow your dreams." "Talent finds a way." "Do what you love, and the money will follow." 

So we've been told. Always, by people sitting at the summit looking down at the multitudes of mopes striving in the valley, unnoticed.

Except the world doesn't work that way. For every movie star there are 10,000 people who tried to make a career in acting and couldn't. Same for professional athletes. Heck, even with more pedantic paths there are tons of people who slave away at endeavors nobody else seems to value.

I've been writing movie reviews for almost 30 years now. I've never made a living at it. At times it's produced a little bit of income and an appreciative audience. Other stretches I've earned literally nothing and felt like nobody is paying attention. So am I mope?

Don't get me wrong. I love doing this.

But so do Steve Driver (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and Tom Dong (Kelly Sry). Meeting up on a set where a group of mopes are paid $40 a pop (quite literally), they bond over their love of classic porn DVDs. They confess their dreams of becoming the guys on the cover instead of extras in the shadows, despite being scrawny dudes without much to boast about physically, up high or down low

(It's a little fuzzy, but the movie appears to take place in the early 2000s before porn distribution migrated to the web.)

Pitching themselves as the "Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan of porn" -- more temporal cues -- they manage to convince a fringe producer/director, Eric (Brian Husky), to take them on as bit players. They're good for things like sniffing shoes and armpits, getting peed on and "ball-busting," in which they're kicked in the nethers and abused in other ways that, some scary Googling later, I learn is actually erotic in some corners.

Tom, who gave up a cush IT job to chase adult entertainment, fixes up the company's website and online sales, so Eric is loathe to cut him loose. Steve becomes the annoying guy nobody wants to work with, his naive enthusiasm quickly morphing into wildly misplaced ego-centrism.

They try to take their act to Rocket (David Arquette, also a producer), a medium-big name in the industry, who demeans them by demanding they perform in ethnically stereotypical ways, like Tom speaking with a Japanese accent (he's actually of Chinese descent) and Steve playing the boisterous black buck.

Things go on, as their attempts to raise money to start their own company sputter out. Later we meet Steve's parents (Clayton Royner and Peggy Dunne), who he'd hoped to pump for investment money and instead deliver some startling truth. Tom starts to open his eyes to their delusion, but Steve won't... or can't.

Compared to "Boogie Nights" or "Hardcore," other mainstream movies set against the backdrop of the porn industry, "Mope" is pretty well at the mope-y end of the spectrum. It strives to be a character study but we don't deeply explore the interiors of its two protagonists. For a movie about porn it does a surprisingly poor job of humanizing the women, who are used for fleshy displays and then disposed of.

The sex scenes are deliberately cringe-y, the acting rather stilted and director Lucas Heyne, who co-wrote the script with Zack Newkirk, can't seem to land on any tone or pacing that work for very long. Frankly, I had trouble getting through it.

Here's the thing that "Mope" forces us to confront: it's just not true that if you love something and sacrifice for your craft, it'll yield the results you want. Failure and disappointment are likely, even common.

Brace yourself, because here's the really hard one. If you give your all to something you truly love and nothing happens, eventually you'll stop loving it. Maybe... even start to hate it.

I'm not suggesting the cast and crew of "Mope" chuck it all and go back to Peoria or wherever. (Actually a lovely town, btw.) By all means, try, try again. But it's a hard thing to accept that you're the mope. Sometimes it takes 25 attempts to see the light, sometimes 2,500.

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