Mr. Art Critic
Small-Gallery Solid Work

When you decide to make a film about a critic who needs to learn a lesson or two, you’re either very silly or very brave.  Methinks Michigan indie filmmaker Richard Brauer is a little of both—and fortunately, his sense of restrained silliness is an almost perfect fit for the rascally self-ware pomposity that is the persona of Bronson Pinchot, whom Brauer wisely cast in the title role of Mr. Art Critic.

M.J. Clayton is an ill-humored scribe for a Big City paper who takes a certain delight in skewering pompous and ill-crafted art.  Just before he’s about to run off to an overdue (if probably undeserved) vacation, he stops by a co-op art show to loft barbs at the earnest exhibitors.  When one of them starts pushing back, Clayton gets really nasty about his psych backstory theories—and it’s kind of funny, because Frank’s displayed work is pretty hideous.  When Frank gets equally nasty, the stage is set for later confrontation.

Toni Trucks as Lisa in Mr. Art Critic

Clayton lands in a truly idyllic Michigan vacation resort community playing host to an upcoming art competition.  Frank, meanwhile, whose show has been shut down early because of—yes—bad reviews, comes home early to find his new adversary hanging out in the local (hopelessy badly-serviced) eateries.  In a scene cribbed from the spirit of early Rob Reiner films like The Sure Thing, Frank drunkenly challenges Clayton’s art credentials—to which Clayton responds with equally drunken and idle boasts… and finds himself backing a $500 bet with a one-week deadline to produce something better than Frank’s stuff as an entry to the competition.

Enter Lisa.  She’s the real deal, an artist with both passion and talent.  (And personality and looks, which don’t hurt.)  When she learns that the Big Critic Clayton is in town, she seeks out his legitimate help to improve her work; and when Clayton gets wind of bad news from the home office, the stakes for the contest go way beyond pride and five hundred bucks… so he makes Lisa a bunch of pretty indecent proposals, artistic and otherwise.

This all sounds pretty ambitious for a two-bit indie film that probably shot its whole budget on Pinchot’s salary.  I’m happy to report that, in this case of leveraged star power, the formula actually works—and fires on almost every Michigan-driven cylinder.

First, Brauer has managed to do what hasn’t been accomplished in years: harness the comic genius that is Bronson Pinchot without goading him into overdone mugging.  In fact, if the outtakes are any indication, Brauer was constantly asking Pinchot (and others) to pull things back—a lot.  It works.  This is gentle comedy of the aforementioned Rob Reiner class, not the broad Carl Reiner / Mel Brooks style nor their crasser and more recent progeny.  In fact the film this most felt like is Gary Marshall’s quiet comedy The Flamingo Kid—which also starred a young Bronson Pinchot.

Second, Brauer pays homage to small town art communities without getting all arty himself.  The scenes with  Frank and his Mackinac Island cronies feel like the gentler passages of a Christopher Guest lampoon, which plays up toward humor without going the full Guest route; and while I might in other circumstances criticize Brauer for not communicating anything of depth about, say, painting, the choice works here.  The one moment where anyone “talks art” in a meaningful way is actually given to Pinchot as a character beat, and it’s the psychological turning point for the audience’s relation to the central character.

Third, Toni Trucks is a real find as Lisa, and is the perfect correlate for her character.  Like Lisa, Trucks is the real deal, an actress with both passion and talent.  And it doesn’t hurt at all that she’s got real charisma and sex appeal that sparks some believable antagonistic chemistry with Pinchot.

This is not an excellent film—but not every film needs to be.  Instead, it’s simply a solid B-level indie picture that delivers what my wife described as clean, mature, adult-oriented entertainment.  If you’ve ever been longing for the Bronson Pinchot comedy that you never saw… well, this is it.

Mr. Art Critic is rated PG-13 for “brief language.” Clayton has a sexual liaison that’s also very adult, but pretty clean, and the language is isolated to a few outbursts from Mr. Art Critic.

Courtesy of the film’s distributor, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Mr. Art Critic.