Sundance 2016: ‘Nuts!’ is loads of fun!

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Written by Thom Stylinski (adapted from the novel, The Life of a Man by Clement Wood)
Directed by Penny Lane
USA, 2016

As the Presidential election cycle kicks into high gear, the terrific new documentary Nuts! feels particularly relevant. Director Penny Lane re-constructs the odd life of early 19th Century American entrepreneur, Dr. John Romulus Brinkley. Like modern-day politicians, Brinkley understood the promotional and financial value of controlling the message. Lane’s off-kilter approach cleverly blurs the line between where the man ends and the myth begins. Any good poker player (or politician) knows you never reveal your hand too soon, and Nuts! keeps you guessing until the final astonishing cards are dealt.

J.R. Brinkley came to the godforsaken town of Milford, Kansas looking to make his fortune. He was a doctor by trade, but he never allowed a pesky little thing like ethics to interfere with making a quick buck. He was also open to treatments that ranged to the… exotic. Brinkley discovered that grafting tissue from a goat’s testicle into a human testicle cured impotence and all manner of sexual affliction. Quicker than you can say “Goat nuts!” Brinkley was on the path to success.

As Brinkley’s notoriety grew, he recognized the revenue potential of the fledging radio industry. In 1923, Brinkley took to the airwaves with a spiritual message and the promise of newborn babies. He quickly built the most powerful signal in America, delivering his testimony to people as far away as Boston. Brinkley was rich, famous, and respected as a physician. In fact, it took some legally-dubious tinkering with Kansas’ voting laws to prevent him from winning the Governor’s seat as a write-in candidate.

And then it all fell apart…

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Nuts! is a decidedly different documentary, both in structure and function. Everything about it is designed for misdirection and flimflammery. Even the narrator (Gene Tognacci) sounds like a cheesy circus barker. Director Penny Lane and her writer, Thom Stylinski, adapted the film (sometimes word for word) from Clement Wood’s biography of Brinkley, The Life of a Man. To say Wood’s account is complimentary would be an insult to compliments. It’s practically an advertisement that stylizes its hero as a working-man’s Edison. To reveal any of the juicy twists and turns in Nuts! would be a crime, but it’s safe to say that both Brinkley and his biographer were not averse to stretching the truth.

The genius of Lane’s creation is that she makes Brinkley such a sympathetic figure. Through rudimentary cartoon re-enactments and a collection of decrepit audio recordings, she paints the portrait of a humble man who fancied himself a young Abe Lincoln, ascending from shoeless beginnings to icon status. Every facet of Brinkley’s life is examined, from his tireless work ethic, to the adorable fawning over his only child, Johnny Boy. When the American Medical Association comes calling, led by his arch nemesis, Morris Fishbein, it feels like Brinkley is being wrongfully targeted. It’s this empathy that elevates Brinkley’s rise and fall into the stuff of tragedy, and makes Nuts! surprisingly insightful.

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Though this absurd story practically writes itself, Lane always finds the perfect visuals and anecdotes to drive her point home. Even the film’s final act, which finds Brinkley dragged from courtroom to courtroom, is brisk and entertaining. When Fishbein exposes the “humble” Brinkley as being a millionaire, Brinkley counters that he earned only 1,110 thousand dollars the previous year. The theater of the absurd meets Greek Tragedy, and the audience is left to decide whether they believe their hearts or the heads.

Nuts! is a tribute to the power of storytelling. More specifically, the power we invest in the storyteller. With a little charm and a lot of ignorance, a good storyteller can hoist himself above reproach. The filmmakers put us in league with the ignorant masses; mingling with shady characters and learning the unseemly particulars of goat glands. The old adage states that, “Truth will only reveal itself to those who are willing to see it.” Nuts! proves this adage through laughter and sorrow… but mostly laughter. It’s an entertaining sleight of hand that’s anything but slight.

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