Every now and then, a movie comes along that makes you feel as though you've fallen face-first into a stale cat box filled with grouchy baby asps. Come to think of it, this seems to happen, oh, one to three times a week, especially when the movie is about "real life" in Los Angeles, and even more so when that "real life" has anything to do with "reel life," i.e., the movie factories. Sometimes we get lucky, as with George Cukor's unflinching What Price Hollywood?, Christopher Guest's wry The Big Picture (featuring a perky Kevin Bacon, who, ironically, has never lived in L.A.), or Ann Lu's earnest Dreamers, but these are rare gems awash in a sea of redundant guano. Yes, yes, L.A. is cheap and cruel and caustic, and its entertainment industry is hopelessly out of whack, but how many cinematic reminders does it take to drive that point home? So thank goodness when a sparkly jewel comes along to shine new light on the subject. In this case, the movie is a very economical Little Indie That Could: Smiling Fish & Goat on Fire. Although the movie charts yet another course through the smog and tenuous dreams of La La Land, it's a sweet charmer with a lovely human heart and countless grace notes.
The weird title refers to two young adult brothers who share a house near Fairfax and Fountain and whose childhood nicknames were bestowed upon them by their half-Native American grandmother. Chris "Goat on Fire" Remi (Derick Martini) is basically the left brain of the two-man team, instilling the house with logic and order, paying the bills and wearing the results on his worried brow. His younger brother, Tony (Steven Martini), however, plays life like a whimsical game, raking his way through adoring ladies while hopefully pursuing an acting career, and living up to his moniker of "Smiling Fish." Although at first their polarized hemispheres seem a bit obvious, the real-life Martini brothers quickly instill their characters with plausible friction, as when Tony gleefully announces that he has an audition "tomorrow," and Chris knowingly asks, "But what are you doing today?" If their parents, who met as bit players at a screen test, hadn't been creamed on the 405 Freeway (again, entirely plausible), they'd be rolling their eyes at the foibles of their progeny. As it is, the brotherly best friends struggle to make sense of the crazy city on their own.
The basic plot revolves around capricious doses of olive oil, doughnut gluttony, evil office cubicles, a feast of indigenous cuisine (Fatburgers), blind hope, love gone wrong, sensitive boys with big, goofy heads, a delightful swarm of chickens and rabbits, and -- most distressingly (and, ultimately, fulfillingly) -- the poignant line: "It was nice almost getting to know you." These elements fall into place gracefully and gradually throughout the story, which begins by establishing the brothers' faltering romantic relationships. Although both men have steady girlfriends, they're quite obviously (to us, anyway) not the right girlfriends. Tony adores his wispy Nicole (Heather Jae Marie), but their joy turns to kerfuffle when she discovers an unfamiliar brand of condom in his boho bedroom (prompting a fine original song, but more on that later). Poor Chris has an even harder road to tread, as his longtime girlfriend, Alison (Amy Hathaway), selfishly puts him through an emotional wringer, weeping during sex, instigating trial separations and hiding a big, ugly secret. What are a hapless accountant and an oblivious actor to do?
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As with most of life's conflicts, the solutions appear as they are needed, providing the characters are willing to work a little to understand them. Chris discovers a new perception of his world when his straitlaced boss, Burt Winter (Wesley Thompson), coerces him into shuttling his eighty-something Uncle Clive (Bill Henderson) back and forth to the office to break the old man's boredom. Clive quickly proves himself to be the finest sort of soul man, however, as he cheers Chris with his dry wit ("The music today, it fucks up your eardrums instead of making love to 'em!") and regales him with tales of his life as a sound recordist during the golden age of Hollywood. Tony, on the other hand, finds himself falling in love with a gentle, intelligent mail carrier named Kathy (Christa Miller), a single mother who has trotted out to Hollywood from Wyoming to offer her young daughter, Natalie (Nicole Rae), a shot at an acting career. As Kathy's genuineness captures Tony's heart and challenges him with the notion of sustainable love, Clive's stories deepen Chris's faith in romance. Just in time, too, because Chris meets a sultry Italian animal wrangler named Anna (Rosemarie Addeo) who is everything his withering flame Alison is not and never could be.
What makes this production so lively and enjoyable is not necessarily a crackling plot or exaggerated emotion (it actually errs, at times, on the side of fluff), but that it has made so much out of so little. Word has it that the whole movie cost about $40,000 (although Martin Scorsese's support may have enhanced that a bit), but the budget is irrelevant when you consider the refreshment that director Kevin Jordan and the co-scripting Martini brothers have wrung from these dusty streets. There is something inherently depressing about a Christmas party in L.A., especially one in a bachelor pad festooned with cheap decorations, but we're not allowed to linger on the anesthetizing setting, zooming in instead upon the simultaneous magic and loss of one brother brightening a child's holiday while the other accidentally dims his own future. By caring about the complexity of the siblings, the Martini brothers have painted us a truly heartfelt portrait.
As the love interests (and the daughter), Miller, Addeo and Rae bring a wide spectrum of hope, struggle and playfulness to the proceedings. The standout, however, is definitely Henderson, who delivers Clive as wise, crotchety, self-absorbed and brilliantly eccentric (witness him overriding the ghastly fluorescents of his office by constructing a tent over his cubicle). It's a little nauseating to hear the creators refer to Clive as "the Yoda of love," but it's definitely accurate. Thanks to Henderson's nuanced, sensitive work and looming mortality (Clive might also be called "the anti-Shaft"), you cannot help but appreciate the man.
As for the aforementioned pop nugget, the ribbed condom in the film prompts Chris to pen a tune called, aptly, "Corduroy Penis." This ditty may seem trifling, but it definitely deserves mention, as it begs to be covered and covered again. (Attention, Neil Diamond, or George Michael, or Billy Ocean: Here's your comeback hit. Fight over it, boys.) The only thing that seems strange -- and sad -- about Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire is that a couple of guys this smart and funny are so limply dependent upon the women in their lives.