As the title character of The Independent, Stiller's Morty Fineman also has spectacularly poor parenting skills, which his resentful daughter Paloma (Janeane Garofalo) never tires of reminding him. But in one respect, Fineman is a proud and attentive Papa, as he's nurtured more than 400 feature films as a producer and director.
Independent writer-director Stephen Kessler and co-scripter Mike Wilkins conceive the fictitious Fineman as a legendary crafter of no-budget exploitation films along the lines of Roger Corman (with a hint of Russ Meyer). The film entertains most thoroughly when showing clips, posters or even mere titles from his oeuvre, from The Foxy Chocolate Robot to What Planet Is This? (Oh My God, It's Earth!) But when The Independent tries to step beyond the "Saturday Night Live" level of spoof, it falls flat.
Fineman's work spans decades, from The Simplex Complex (a black-and-white anti-herpes film shot for the Army) to The Whole Story of America, his only "serious" film, which combines the worst of Dances With Wolves and Billy Jack. Fineman has never recovered from the belly flop of his magnum opus and is constantly holding creditors at bay, with one bank offering to buy his complete library of films -- at $8 a pound.
Fineman bullies the neurotic Paloma to step in as "president" of Fineman Films and help her father rebuild his finances and restore his legitimacy. While a middle-of-nowhere film festival woos Fineman to be its guest of honor, he tries to get a new film off the ground, always angling for a hit. He constantly points to his film's serious messages amid the stage blood and T&A: The Independent opens with a scene from Ms. Kevorkian, in which the death-with-dignity advocate is reimagined as a scantily clad, gun-toting amazon (played by actual schlock siren Julie Strain).
The Independent is most inspired when showing scenes from the cut-rate auteur's work, from The Eco-Angels with its ecologically minded biker chicks to the hairless but empowered heroes of Bald Justice. The stiff acting, the paralyzed camera angles, the muddy sound and even the washed-out film exposures provide perfect re-creations of the junk cinema of earlier eras.
Interviewees like Ron Howard, Fred Williamson, Karen Black and Roger Corman himself are also in on the joke, but The Independent uses the faux-documentary style as a kind of crutch. Much of the movie makes no pretense to cinema verite, as in many scenes that cut between close-ups, suggesting multiple cameras and not a lone cameraman. You wish that Kessler and Wilkins had chosen a style at the outset, and stuck with it.
The film strives for the level of This is Spinal Tap or Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. Guest is also prone to inconsistently integrate documentary style in his narrative, but he tends to be more discrete. He's also better at staying close to the plausible, while Independent's fake films like Christ for the Defense seem only like self-contained, two-minute jokes.
Fineman himself is a credible, affectionately drawn showbiz bottom feeder, the kind who'll seize any claim to fame. He boasts that he came up with putting roman numerals in the titles of sequels, beginning with World War III II.
But a person can't substitute for a plot, and The Independent doesn't come up with strong comic anecdotes from Fineman's life. A narrative strand follows his attempts to get the screen rights to a serial killer's story, who'll only sell if Fineman makes it a musical. Neither the set-up nor the resolution elicit laughs, to the point where you have no idea how funny Kessler believed it to be.
Likable though Stiller is, The Independent puts a lot on his shoulders, and the bits of physical humor -- Fineman doing Tai Chi in a track suit in the opening credits -- never set off sparks. Nor do he and the colorlessly cranky Garofalo have much familial chemistry, although she amusingly deadpans some childhood recollections -- for instance, she recalls that her approach to cheerleading was "more introspection, less movement." The film's heart can be found in Fineman's right-hand man Ivan, who came on board as a teen intern and never left.
The film includes brief appearances from Ben Stiller, the late Ted Demme and former Sex Pistol John Lydon, rolling his eyes as a self-important film festival director named Baruce. In fact, The Independent has so many strengths that its overall weakness proves something of a mystery. Perhaps The Independent's chosen material has gone stale. It's all well and good to tweak blaxploitation, splatter movies and skin flicks, but what about the spate of other mockumentaries or Hollywood lampoons that have become epidemic since the 1990s?
The Independent's closing credits list all 400 of Fineman's movies in chronological order, and the titles themselves are funny. You also can find them on the amusingly bogus "Fineman Films" website, which proves a more consistent piece of satire than The Independent itself.