I wonder if any movie better exemplifies the evolving goals of the Wisconsin Film Festival than Chris Smith's American Job, which will be screened on the festival's opening night, March 30, then again on April 2. Made entirely in the Midwest (Smith did the editing at UW-Milwaukee) for a mere $14,000, this documentary-like look at the world of minimum-wage employment is about as independent as you can get; and except for festival screenings, it hasn't really been seen. That's a shame, for this is simply one hell of a film, perhaps a landmark in the cinematic depiction of work. While watching its main character--a quiet loner named Randy--carom from one dead-end job to another, I wanted to both laugh and cry, and not just because the movie brought my own labor history bubbling to the surface. Like few filmmakers before him, Smith has captured the high cost of American free enterprise, the gloom behind the boom. To paraphrase the Clintonites: It's the service economy, stupid. Through the course of the film, Randy tries his hand at telemarketing, playing hotel maid, cleaning a fast-food chicken joint, doing inventory on a temporary basis and working the injection molder at a plastics factory. I've scrambled the order, but the order doesn't matter; Randy's "career" is a series of lateral moves, his only moments of freedom (if you want to call it that) when he walks off the job. The movie might not work so well if it weren't for the extraordinary ordinariness of thespian Randy Russell, who betrays either no acting experience or tons of it. Russell has perhaps the least cinematic face I've ever seen and no charisma, yet he's achingly real. And so is the boringly stilted dialogue in the interview and training scenes. Smith makes the cheapness of the production work for him, adopting a verité style that has the deadening effect of an industrial film.
Somehow, the tedium is fascinating, perhaps because we almost never see people do honest-to-God work in a movie. Even in labor-oriented films like Office Space and Clockwatchers, work life keeps taking a back seat to personal life. Randy has almost no personal life, unless you count being taken to--and then dumped at--a strip joint by the guy who just showed him how to change the sheets at the hotel. So quiet and lonely is this alienated worker that you half-expect him to go postal on us, but Smith has something else in mind for him, a parting gesture that offers either a shred of hope or the final strand of rope around Randy's neck. I fear I haven't adequately conveyed how painfully funny this all is. The humor comes from Randy's awkward attempts to adjust to one absurd environment after another. He's like a worker-bee Woody Allen, a human punchline, and you keep wishing that he would--or at least could--punch back.