“He likes to shout. I like to smile.”
My description of Jim Hosking‘s feature directorial debut The Greasy Strangler: a gross-out, darkly obscure comedy centered on a father and son duo akin to Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne from Dumb and Dumber that exists in a deranged parallel universe to Napoleon Dynamite as directed by John Waters. On some level that sounds amazing. On another it makes my skin crawl. I love Dumb and Dumber, hate Napoleon Dynamite, and appreciate Waters whether I enjoy his trash cinema aesthetic every outing or not. So a mixture of them all makes my initial reaction to Hosking and co-writer Toby Harvard‘s unforgettable romp confused. I applaud their originality and sheer disgusting lunacy, but saying I enjoyed watching it would be a lie. And I’ll definitely never watch it again.
For some this is a badge of honor and there’s no denying a devoted following will be earned. The stigma it carries while continuing to roll out into more theaters has already allocated money to create “Greasy” memorabilia for a devoted hoard of genre fanatics waiting for their opportunity to see its audaciousness themselves. The way Hosking and Harvard embrace the discomfort onscreen is nothing short of commendable; their unapologetic handling of the grotesque in visuals, performance, pacing, and humor uniquely inspired if you’re able to keep your eyes open, stop them from rolling, and settle stomachs that simply cannot help but turn over courtesy of enough grease and oil to cause a second-hand cardiac event. I often wondered if the filmmakers want us to hate it.
The plot is smooth and straightforward as it concerns love of the familial and romantic sort. Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels) is a disco maven from way back who put his career on the backburner to raise his son Big Brayden (Sky Elobar) after his wife split with six-pack abdominal-crunching Ricky Prickles. Now that Brayden is all grown up, the two continue to shack up together while running a disco tour company composed of bullshit and vitriol … and absolutely no free drinks. They have an agreement wherein son lives for free as long as he cooks dad his meals nice and greasy. But don’t assume Ronnie’s love for oil means he’s the titular serial killer on the loose. He merely needs the grease to lubricate his esophagus.
The gloves come off once Brayden inexplicably begins dating one of their customers, Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo), because his cheese-ball antics and awkward insecurities are exactly what she needs. Afraid she’ll take his son away—despite constantly proclaiming his disappointment for the boy and a desire to evict him—Ronnie decides to put the moves on her too. Will Janet stay with the sensitive fatty and his micropenis or will she jump ship to the biggest dick-swinging bullshit artist cinema has ever seen? Will the Greasy Strangler continue killing everyone Ronnie and Brayden come into contact with so that Janet is eventually next? Will anyone open his/her mouth wider than a grimace to laugh? Must we accept how every style choice is purposefully disquieting and intentionally odd?
I’ll answer that last question with a resounding, “Yes.” When something weird occurs it feels as though the filmmakers painted themselves into a corner and brainstormed what the most off-the-wall solution was before including it in their screenplay. Why else would Brayden’s best friend Oinker (Joe David Walters) wear a paper pig nose? Why would they make Ronnie’s BFF Big Paul (Gil Gex) a blind car wash owner for which the Strangler frequents to scrub off his grease with its stiff brushes? Why does everyone use the word “Big” as a name modifier as though the world they live in was created by a dude-bro God who forgot to create dude-bros? And the legal tender used to buy things? Whoa boy. A cruel joke legitimized in quick fashion.
It’s impossible to talk about any details because you have to see them to believe them. And considering the plot literally supplies nothing besides the aforementioned love triangle between Ronnie, Brayden, and Janet, the film’s success (or failure) literally hinges on those details. You either enjoy a two-minute long screaming match between St. Michaels and a trio of tourists credited by their nationalities (Abdoulaye NGom‘s Senegalese, Holland MacFallister‘s Scandinavian, and Sam Dissanayake‘s Indian) that repeats the same phrase over and over and over again or you don’t. This is “Family Guy” comedy to the nth-degree wherein the jokes aren’t just run into the ground, they’re jackhammered down until hitting the Earth’s core for one more deathblow of monotony before burning up and returning to a semblance of action.
The violence is laughable with concave rubber faces, protruding eyeballs fetched and fried for a late-night snack, and the obviously fabricated grease suit worn by the film’s predator so the actor beneath doesn’t get the thick oil inside every crevasse of his body. It’s less disgusting or shocking than quizzically fascinating the way a car crash on the highway proves. We watch to see how absurd things can get and Hosking never disappoints. Neither do St. Michaels, Elobar, or De Razzo, each baring all without a shred of shame to render everything as uncomfortable as it is liberating. And by setting them inside an alternate reality rather than some hidden glory hole of American filth, we’re able to accept their intentionally amateurish ticks as alien and not inexperience.
But what does it add up to? Being seen and starting a conversation is one thing, having the conversation surround nothing but its audacity is another. I can give Hosking and his collaborators credit for putting something unlike anything I’ve seen before out there, but I cannot hail them as kings. Say it’s a riff on the genre or commentary on society all you want; it’s a gross adventure devoid of value beyond surface reaction to me. I wish I could turn off the part of my brain preventing me from enjoying it on a purely juvenile level of “I can’t believe this,” but I’m not that strong. Rather than smile or gasp when the end credits rolled, my reaction was a scream after Ronnie’s heart: “Bullshit Artists!”