There’s something to be said for a joke that gets seriously out of hand. Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington’s On Cinema began as a podcast that typically clocked in at under five minutes. It then evolved into a web series that migrated to Adult Swim, which has spun off to a side series on television, and that in turn led to a multi-day real-time streamed murder trial. Now, at last, we come to the feature film. It’s a journey that’s as unbelievable as the one that Heidecker goes through in Mister America. This film may have a lot of history behind it, but whether you’re aware of On Cinema’s decade-long past, are a fan of Heidecker’s other comedic efforts, or just admire gonzo experimental filmmaking, Mister America is an immensely satisfying triumph.
Mister America presents itself as a documentary about one deluded man’s egotistical journey for validation and absolution as he tears down anything and everything to create this underdog hero narrative as he runs for district attorney. Clearly on some level this is supposed to parallel the same destructive conquest that Donald Trump experienced on his rise to become President of the United States, but this is far from some veiled jab at Trump. Heidecker and On Cinema have been playing this card and building up this character for the better part of a decade. Tim’s exaggerated version of himself is a small, angry, dangerous man, and while that may take some time to reveal itself in Mister America, it’s still certainly present. Tim’s quest brings up very raw feelings as his public veneer wears down.
Tim’s platform for office initially seems incredibly thin. He speaks in buzz phrases and fancy boilerplate that doesn’t really mean anything. As the documentary develops, it becomes clear that his mission is much less to be DA and more to ruin Vincent “The Rat” Rosetti, a man that (rightfully) humiliated him. In that sense, Mister America functions as a farcical campaign mockumentary, but it’s also very much a “sequel” to the massive “Electric Sun 20” murder trial stunt put together last year by this team.
The film documents Tim’s various campaign goals, like his major hurdle to get on the election ballot as an independent candidate, register on the public’s radar, and hold a debate in front of San Bernadino County. Heidecker efforts to become DA involve him mingling with ordinary people as he inserts his unconventional attitude into their lives. It’s entertaining to watch these bewildered individuals try to keep up with Heidecker.
Another major aspect of the film is Heidecker’s dynamic with his optimistic yet inept campaign manager, Toni Newman (Terri Parks), who actually shares a surprising history with him. Tim and Toni’s scenes together are some of the best in the feature. There’s a strange kinship between them, even if one of them is a professional and the other is just a big child in a suit. Her hard work is often derailed by Tim’s complete buffoonery, but in a way it oddly paints a picture of him as a relatable, everyday person; a “Mister America,” if you will.
Mister America’s structure cleverly juxtaposes Heidecker’s campaign gaining momentum with faces from his past coming forward to shed light on the “Real Tim” and the darkness from his life. This includes a testimonial from Gregg Turkington, Tim’s co-host, frequent punching bag, and rival from On Cinema, who completely steals the show here. Turkington provides a very helpful summation of the On Cinema timeline and Tim’s decline for outsiders, which truly highlights how insane this trip has been.
Turkington’s material and his efforts to weasel his way into the film and get under an old rival’s skin become a frequent source of conflict, and “Greggheads” will be extremely pleased with how he’s featured in the film. Through the campaign, Tim continually tries to spin the narrative that the DA is the antagonist, yet Tim truly doesn’t comprehend that he’s far more dangerous than his opponent Nevertheless, this self-centered experience becomes a type of catharsis for both the character and the audience.
There may be initial skepticism behind Mister America and if it justifies its feature-length presentation, but this is a full story that’s able to breathe. It sustains the idea and finds new ground rather than just spinning its wheels and losing itself in comedy set-pieces. That being said, there’s still room for improvement here and things could be tighter. At one point Tim and Toni consider making a campaign ad to compete against Rosetti’s, but then never actually do it. Through its narrative hijinks, dangling threads leave something to be desired.
Mister America is a true anomaly and Magnolia Pictures deserves credit for running with this unusual gambit. There’s a deeply funny, human story that’s being told, and it’s a masterful example of Tim Heidecker’s strengths as a minimalist comedian, rivaling the likes of Nathan for You and the works of Sacha Baron Cohen. Hopefully this isn’t the last time that director Eric Notarnicola and company take their variety of madness to the big screen.
Mister America opens in limited release on Oct. 9.
Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, and Bloody Disgusting. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem, that Psycho II is better than the original, and he’s always game to discuss Space Dandy. His perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.