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‘The Final Member’ is frustrating more often than funny

‘The Final Member’ is frustrating more often than funny

TheFinalMember_posterThe Final Member
Directed by Jonas Bekhor and Zach Math
USA, 2014

Thirty-seven years ago, if the new documentary The Final Member is to be believed, an Icelandic college professor named Sigurdur Hjartarson received a bull’s penis from a colleague, as a joke. Somehow this transformed into a lifelong desire to collect phallic organs from as many animals as he possibly could, and display them in the Icelandic Phallological Museum. The Final Member follows Hjartarson’s quest to find his most elusive specimen: the homo sapiens.

Directors Jonas Bekhor and Zach Math understand that most audiences will need at least a half hour to get the sophomoric laughter out of their systems. And so a hefty chunk of this 72-minute trifle is devoted to the simple oddity that is the existence of a Phallological Museum. Not coincidentally, this is also the most entertaining portion of The Final Member, by far. Sample line of dialogue, from Hjartarson’s wife: “There were just too many penises coming into the house.”

The problem is that, in his quest to find a human specimen, Hjartarson focuses on two volunteers: famed Icelandic adventurer Pall Arason and Texas cowpoke Tom Mitchell. The only animal missing from Hjartarson’s museum is also the only animal with an ego, there’s no one body part more closely associated with that ego, and so it should come as no surprise that the egos of these two candidates quickly become difficult to tolerate. Two guys bragging about the historical value of their genitalia may sound like a fun premise for a Will Ferrell farce, but it it’s simply frustrating here. Arason’s claims of serial conquest (if he’s telling the truth, he’s the Wilt Chamberlain of Iceland, proportionally speaking) are little more than lecherous bragging, and Mitchell’s obsession with his member (he calls it “Elmo” and often refers to it as though it were a separate person) starts off with a small amount of quirky charm that soon departs.

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More than that, this film shifts to “creepy” in its second half. Arason is not willing to donate his organ while he is alive, so the latter parts of The Final Member carry a morbid air, as though Hjartarson (and, by extension, the audience) is waiting eagerly for an old man’s death. There may be no more horrific scene in any thriller this year as the scene in which the camera sits in Arason’s hospital room: the old man as white as a sheet, withered and disheveled, unable to say anything but “it’s shrinking, all of it.”

As for Mitchell, his eagerness to remove Elmo is, in a word, unseemly. Mitchell claims that Elmo is capable of a level of fame much higher than he is, but any sane human being knows that’s not how it works: Mitchell will have to represent his member in the legal arena, if nowhere else. His desperation to achieve this fame reaches its nadir when he travels to San Francisco, lies to a gender-reassignment surgeon about wanting to transition to an androgynous state, and tells the camera in an interview that he needs to remove Elmo because women often take advantage of him. It is as though he forgot the various interviews he had already done, claiming that his sole desire is to have the most famous penis in human history.

TheFinalMember_featured

In short, both of these men claim to be making a self-sacrificing act but are doing it for self-serving reasons. Worse, Bekhor and Math seem to accept them at face value: Arason is such a legend in Iceland that no interview subject can view him with skepticism, while Mitchell’s “women take advantage of me” interview takes place over a somber black background with moody music on the soundtrack. In the face of one man’s one man’s death and another man’s dismemberment, the laughter from the start of this film comes to feel like mockery, and the audience comes to feel like they’re party to an obscenity.

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The Final Member ends with an amusing visual pun that tries to return to the lighthearted tone of the film’s beginning. It might have worked, except that the end credits play out alongside panels from a comic book that Mitchell is attempting to publish: Elmo in a costume and cape, punching out villains while spouting awful phallic puns. That’s The Final Member in a nutshell: it tells the audience something that they didn’t know, something that could make them chuckle, but if you want to run the Phallological Museum, you have to put up with a lot of dicks.

-Mark Young