"Fuckery and shenanigans." That's how the sister of one of the antagonists in Finders Keepers (2015, directed by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel) describes the film's conflict over a severed leg found in a barbecue smoker. It's as good a description as any, I guess. Finders Keepers is the kind of film that Flannery O'Connor might have written had she lived in the current media age. She once wrote a story in which a traveling salesman makes off with the prosthetic leg of a lady professor, so there's a precedent there. This is a film that certainly veers uncomfortably close to hicksploitation, to say nothing of the Southern Gothic.
The leg in question once belonged to John Wood, who lost it in a plane crash that killed his father. He had stored the leg in the smoker hoping to have it rendered down to bone in order to create a funeral monument for it, but he failed to pay the fee at the storage place and his belongings were auctioned. The man who bought the smoker and the leg was one Shannon Whisnant, scrounger and entrepreneur, who sees in the leg the opportunity for a few quick bucks. He wants to charge people to view it. A custody battle ensues, one played out mostly in the media, where it's the subject of local and national talk shows, a German talk show that brings both men on at once, The Jerry Springer Show, and ultimately the Judge Mathis show, where the final disposition is decided. But that's not the end. The film is also a chronicle of self-delusion and self-destruction. Wood struggles with addiction to the point where he's estranged from his family. The media circus surrounding his foot only fuels his problems. Initially hesitant to cash in on the conflict, he eventually caves to the lure of money when his addictions get out of hand. Whisnant, by contrast, suffers from the humiliation of getting a kind of fame he doesn't want. Oh, he wants fame, true, just not as a clown. He's not self-aware enough to realize that that's what he is in this scenario. He makes t-shirts celebrating his find, for instance, and sells them on the internet. He's a small-time hustler with delusions of grandeur. Fame is not kind to him.
Finders Keepers is ostensibly a comedy, a mask it wears for two thirds of its length. On that level, it succeeds. It's funny, though I suspect that the laughs it gets will make some people uncomfortable. Once the film veers into more serious issues--Wood's addictions, Whisnant's marital woes, issues of grief and reconciliation--the film begins to paper over it's own exploitation elements with something like sincerity. It's a jarring tonal shift. Both men cease being clowns at the circus, and the movie goes out of its way to insist that both men are tragic. With Wood, it hits the notes of bathos by showing us an overpass where Wood once sheltered, or provides the testimony of his mother, who cuts off contact with him when he's at his lowest point. For Whisnant, it's a stint on a reality TV show, where it's clear that his agency as a person is less important than his minor celebrity. Fame, it turns out, isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Locating an overarching theme here is treacherous, because while the fame monster is an easy and obvious target for the filmmakers, it slips away when confronted by the sucking horror of bourgeois media that grants that fame. The story of the leg is certainly grotesque, but is it more grotesque than the web of reality tv shows that turn it into a story in the first place? No. But even that isn't the central theme of the film, because it shares equal time with the redemption story that closes out the last act. If you view the film as three acts, each act gets a different mood and a different meaning. The first act is a farce, the second is a satire, and the third is a drama. The film survives the disconnect between its various moving parts because of the constancy of the personalities involved, but only just.
In spite of my reservations, I still had a good time watching Finders Keepers. I saw it with a game crowd and watching comedy with a crowd is a great experience if they're into it. There's a twinkle in the eye of some of the movie's participants that suggests they're in on the gag, too. Whisnant is certainly willing to allow himself to be exploited by the filmmakers. Hell, he's shown doing it on-camera. Sure, I'm troubled by a broader question of whether or not this film is exploitation. Is it part of the same fame machine that fuels its story? Maybe. Is the redemption narrative at the end earned after such a thing, or is it almost apologetic? Maybe. It almost makes one regret enjoying the pleasures and laughs the movie surely does provide. Almost. In the end, a good laugh covers a lot of ills and this is ultimately a funny film. Fuckery and shenanigans, indeed.
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