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Consumed With Hate: The Chumscrubber

🐬No, I Don't Want Your Number...

The Crime: The Chumscrubber
The Guilty Party: Arie Posen
Overview: A mid-budget "indie" film gets lost in its own muddled storytelling

Why I Hate It...

The 90s indie boom changed the film landscape, launching the careers of auteurs like Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, Spike Lee, David O. Russell, the Cohen brothers, Spike Jonez, Robert Rodriguez, Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, and more. After Pulp Fiction (which was financed by Disney, but still was huge force behind the movement), we had a slew of films with non-linear stories. The Blair Witch Project basically invented "found footage" as a genre and spawned multiple imitators. As the trend continued, major studios started to spin off their own "indie" subsidiaries like Focus Features and Fox Searchlight. A lot of this was clout chasing. Harvey Weinstein was notoriously thirsty for Oscars (not, admittedly, his most grievous sin during this period, but that's neither here nor there). As the decade closed out, genuine indies were being crowded out by "Indiewood" awards bait, and while some great movies did come out of this--one of my favorite films ever is Rian Johnson's 2005 debut Brick--there was a lot of hot garbage that was long on vibe but short on storytelling.

Enter The Chumscrubber. What's it about? Well, it's hard to say. There's some suburban malaise in there, but also drugs, but also isolation and depression, and something about dolphins. It's not the kind of movie that ever congeals into into what you might call a story. It starts with the death by suicide of Troy, the drug supplier for the tiny, isolated California suburb that was basically also the setting for Weeds. Troy's body is found by his best friend Dean who declines to actually process any of his emotions. Dean is then tormented by lower-level drug dealers at his high school Billy and Lee, who assume that Dean knows where Troy's stash is and devise a plan to ransom Dean's little brother Charlie, only they kidnap the wrong Charlie. Somewhere along the line Ralph Fiennes falls into a pool and becomes obsessed with dolphins. The drugs eventually find their way into a casserole at a funeral. Antics ensue. Dean cries. Wrong Charlie gets free. The titular Chumscrubber--a headless zombie video game character who is a clear representation for Troy--shows up in person and the camera dollies up into the atmosphere to reveal that the little suburb is actually dolphin-shaped. The end.

I promise you, it doesn't make any more sense if you watch it. Now, full disclosure, I liked this movie when it came out. It has some compelling performances from Jamie Bell and Allison Janney, and it definitely has that kind of ending where you watch it and don't understand it but feel like maybe the film is just challenging you artistically. I had a similar reaction to Donnie Darko, and people freaking love that movie. But having rewatched it years later, I have a better appreciation for what it means to be "challenging" versus "poorly assembled," and The Chumscrubber is definitely the latter, despite a few entertaining moments. It is a thematic muddle.

What, precisely, are the filmmakers trying to say about suburbia? Or drugs? Or drug dealing? What parallels should we draw between Troy and Dean's mom, who is hawking supplements? The alignment seems obvious, but the movie doesn't ever comment on it. It doesn't condemn or even chastise her for anything--indeed, the ending finds her suddenly successful, and not even in a winking, ironic way. Does this mean that Troy would have been in the right to keep selling drugs? Speaking of Troy, why would we be representing him with a headless zombie whose catchphrase is "I'm not dead, but what kind of a life is this?" What can we learn about Troy from this? How are we supposed to take it seriously that his death is meaningful to Dean? Why on Earth would he show up in person in the last thirty seconds of the movie? What's up with the dolphins? It may seem like I'm exaggerating how prevalent they are in the film, and I want to assure you that I'm not. It's a major subplot that the mayor sees dolphins in footprints and has a religious experience and throws off all of his responsibilities in order to paint them. What does this mean? Are dolphins meant to represent escape? If so, then why is it a big reveal that the suburb that everyone is malaising about is shaped like one?

I could go on. In fact, I will. Why are there three kidnappers? Justin Chatwin, I get. He's well-cast as a charismatic mean kid. But why cast Lou Taylor Pucci as a tough alongside him? Why is Camilla Belle working with them? Why isn't Carrie-Anne Moss suspicious since the kidnapping is taking place under her own roof? What is the orgiastic funeral supposed to be--other than an amusing set-piece? How do any of these pieces tie into each other and what does it have to do with Dean's ability or inability to process grief, which is the central character journey of the film that also feels like a complete after-thought? And what does any of this have to do with dolphins, zombies, or the scrubbing of chum? Hell, why is this movie even called The Chumscrubber?

Unsurprisingly, Arie Poser did not go on to be one of the voices of his generation. This was a commercial and critical flop and is his best-known film. It's almost worth tracking down just for how weird it is, but as a storytelling vehicle, it mostly fails.

Next week, time to turn into a dinosaur and complain about the kids these days and their rock-and-roll music...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.