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Distilled Absurdity

When you boil it down, there are two kinds of movies. The first are studio movies. These range from the (formerly) unstoppable juggernaut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to dramas directed by Clint Eastwood. They come from a major studio* such as Disney, Universal, and others. Whether or not these films are actually good, they’re released with multimillion dollar budgets that lend them a sheen of professionalism.

The second kind is independent films, and that term covers everything from studios like A24 and Blumhouse to scrappy filmmakers who make movies for less than one hundred dollars. As much as I enjoy a well-made studio pic, indie films are where my heart is. I love the idea of someone having a vision, no matter how specific, and managing to power through all the obstacles in order to end up with a movie featuring a particular point of view. **

If you want the purest distillation of a filmmaker’s vision, indie cinema is where you’ll find it. And sometimes, to put it gently, those visions are weird AF. For example, today we’re here to talk about Hanky Panky, a comedy involving an isolated mountain lodge, an extradimensional horror in the form of a hat, and a sentient handkerchief that’s sexually excited by the act of wiping things up. Yes, I’m serious. No, I don’t have a traumatic brain injury.

We’re introduced to Sam (Jacob DeMonte-Finn), a young man arriving at the aforementioned mountain lodge. He’s been invited for a weekend getaway, and if we’re being honest, Sam’s invitation was probably a mistake. It doesn’t help that he shows up wearing a suit like a Wes Anderson escapee. It profoundly doesn’t help that he’s accompanied by his best friend Woody (voiced by Toby Bryan). Remember I mentioned the sentient handkerchief that gets off on messes? Yeah…that’s Woody.

This isn’t a situation where Sam is the lone weirdo tormenting a houseful of normies, heavens, no! In short order, Sam meets:

  • Diane (Ashley Holliday Tavares), a Boulderesque goofball who’s a big fan of expanding her consciousness through psychedelics.
  • Carla (Christina Laskay), a woman who wields sarcasm to devastating effect.
  • Cliff (Anthony Rutowicz), Carla’s insufferably bro-ish husband.
  • Dr. Crane (Nick Roth), a faux academic wearing a very nice cardigan.
  • Lilith (Azure Parsons), the good doctor’s spouse who’s more than a little two-faced.
  • Rebecca (Lindsay Haun), one of the hosts of their weekend excursion, who has a highly unsettling relationship with….
  • Norm (Toby Bryan, in the flesh), the brother of Rebecca who might as well be wearing a shirt reading, “I AM A SLACK-JAWED YOKEL.”
  • Kelly (Clare Grant), a suspiciously perky neighbor who always shows up with what she claims are freshly baked goods.

During this alpine vacation, this houseful of ding-dongs have more to deal with than just each other. One by one, they start turning up dead. Before long they realize the shocking truth, that they’re being hunted…by a hat. A very evil hat named Harry (voiced by Seth Green) who is up to hat-shaped mischief.

When Hanky Panky first hit my radar, publicists referred to it as a stoner comedy. I get it, considering the bonkers premise. However, weed has nothing to do with the story, characters, themes, or tone. Plus, it also implies that there’s a degree of half-assed filmmaking. That’s not correct, since directors Lindsey Haun and Nick Roth understand exactly the kind of film they’re making. They’ve added a pinch of Clue, a dollop of Evil Dead, a soupçon of Airplane, a dash of The Shining, and a little less than a teaspoonful of Hundreds of Beavers. Haun and Roth haven’t made a lazy spoof movie, they’ve made a comedy that gleefully dives into the deep end of absurdity. There will be people who will point at the…um, modest budget as a point of criticism. That’s a feature Haun and Roth cleverly exploit, and when I saw the extremely obvious wires used to fling Harry the Hat at the actors, it worked for me.

The screenplay by Nick Roth takes a lesson from Airplane in two major ways. The first is that it bombards the audience in a blizzard of jokes. Are all of the jokes funny? Not so much, but enough of them are funny. When you’re confronted by a groaner, not to worry because a smarter and better gag will be along shortly. The second comparison to Airplane is that the characters never wink at the audience and acknowledge that they’re in a comedy. That Jimmy Fallon-ization of comedy is fatal, since it’s never as clever or charming as it’s meant to be. Here, everyone behaves according to their own internal logic, which helps to push the absurdity to the next level.

The cast isn’t exactly filled to the brim with brilliant comedic performers. That’s okay, since we need to be reminded that comedy is considerably harder to successfully pull off than drama. Too often, performers think that yelling, overacting, and talking fast equals comedy. Luckily, there are some genuine standouts. Jacob Demonte-Finn is the calm and slightly anxious center around which all the insanity revolves. As Sam, he’s not wacky, yet he has to constantly deal with a sexually excitable handkerchief, a demonic chapeau, and his attraction toward the sweet earth muffin Diane. Speaking of which, Ashley Holliday Tavares’ Diane is both likable and a well-calibrated performance. She knows when to lean hard into the hippie aspect, and when to pull back so as not to steal scenes from her partners. I also want to shout out Christina Laskay as the relentlessly snide Carla. She goes beyond simply bitchy to a state of pathological sarcasm. It’s as if she has an as-yet undiagnosed mental disorder where sarcasm is her defense mechanism.

Hanky Panky is an independent film in the truest sense of the phrase. If you’re looking for comfort viewing, the kind of comedy you’ve seen before, this ain’t it. But if you want to see the movie that’s a reflection of Lindsay Haun and Nick Roth’s particular vision, plus one with some pretty inspired chuckles, this one is a winner.

 

*Though “major studio” doesn’t mean what it used to, with many studios either merging or slowly succumbing to the ravages of time.

**That doesn’t mean indie cinema is automatically better. In fact, I’ve seen some godawful indie films that made me wish someone had taken the filmmaker aside and said, “Have you considered not making movies?”



Tim Brennan Movie Critic

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.

 

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