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Entries in Registered Sex Offender [2008] (1)

Thursday
Feb232012

Registered Sex Offender (2008)

Kidding Touchers

I'm not sure what to make of Netflix's assumption that I'd really like Registered Sex Offender. There's plenty to admire here, but writer/director Bob Byington's handling of his subject matter challenged me during each of the film's seventy-four minutes--and not in a good way.

To be clear, I don't mind someone making a mockumentary about sex offenders. But building a comedic narrative around pedophiles and Peeping Toms is a hell of a gauntlet to throw down. The characters had better be compelling and the dialogue witty beyond belief. Otherwise, the audience may tune out--or worse, question whose side the filmmakers are one.

My biggest problem with Registered Sex Offender is that it's so well-made, so convincing, that on more than one occasion I had to remind myself that I was watching constructs and not real people. Normally, I'd kill to have that kind of immersive, cinematic experience, but with RSO (Gabriel McIver) as our unlikable, creepy, and abusive protagonist, the movie gives us nothing to latch onto but exponential negativity and borderline defenses of indefensible behavior.

RSO (we never learn his real name) is the subject of a documentary-within-the-mockumentary about men who've been busted for various illegal sex acts. We don't learn his actual crime until nearly the end, leaving us dangling on the mental hook of imagining which innumerable wrongs he might have been sent away for. As he wanders through kid-packed parks and ice rinks, and asks nearly every girl he meets how old she is, we hope against hope that he isn't a child molester.

A camera crew follows him from incarceration to release, from individual and group counseling sessions to numerous job searches; RSO's court-mandated introductions to every neighbor in a three-block radius serve as comic interstitials. Byington's vision for the film seems to be a reigned-in, Austin, TX, version of Bruno, with straight-edged characters orbiting an off-putting goof-ball. RSO's group counselor (Kevin Corrigan), one-on-one counselor (Andrew Bujalski), and the head of the production company behind the documentary (Damian Young), are wonderfully understated and compelling. They help inflate the film's illusion; sadly, the bubble bursts whenever we pan back to RSO, who's arched-eyebrow, hunched disposition paint him as the worst kind of so-over-it hipster. He's a wall of corduroy-draped irony that is at once a cartoon and wholly believable.

To his credit, McIver pulls off his character so well that I couldn't stand to watch him.* At no point during the film did I think, "This guy's giving a great performance." I just assumed the actor to be a skeevy, unpleasant perv in real life. Especially in the scenes where he belittles and harasses his long-time girlfriend, Tina (Kristen Tucker), I wanted to turn the movie off. RSO's verbal and emotional abuse cut deeper than any raised fist, and, like nearly every other set-up in the film, I wondered who was supposed to find all of this amusing, and to what degree.

In fairness, I laughed really hard at a single joke: in therapy, RSO defends his coaxing of Tina into anal sex by boasting about how good it felt in prison (the delivery is awesomely vulgar, and I won't ruin it here). Aside from that, the gags fall consistently flat. Mostly, I think this is due to the thick cloud of denial hanging over RSO and many of his co-offenders.

It's not a cute cluelessness like one might find on The Office; it's a variation of the dissociative delusions paraded week in and week out on hoarding and "strange addiction" TV shows. The main draw for these programs--despite, I'm sure, what the networks would like you to believe--is for the audience to either laugh at the mentally unstable or pat themselves on the back for not having turned out like them. Crafting great (or even passable) jokes out of that is tricky business.

The best mockumentaries feature lovable buffoons as subjects, and follow them through almost otherworldly realities that we're made to believe exist within our own. Whether the glittery rock universe of This is Spinal Tap, the faux-glamour-obsessed dog pageant community of Best in Show, or the serial-killer cult-worship society of Behind the Mask, these movies succeed by trailing a quirky, extraordinary protagonist or two as they navigate conventional character arcs in unconventional ways. No matter how warped they may be, the heroes always come across as having recognizably human flaws.

Registered Sex Offender takes place in modern-day Austin, and follows characters who could very well live down the block. The film's hero is everything you hate about entitled, apathetic guys, and the fact that RSO can hardly find anything compelling, original, or funny to say is, perhaps, Byington's ingenious statement about contemporary youth culture. RSO isn't cool or hilarious--he's just mean; sadly, that has become comedic currency in some circles; but I ain't buying.

Worse yet, RSO's crime is a big cheat. It seems as though Byington painted his screenplay into a corner and found a quick, easy "out" by making the offense nowhere near as terrible as the rest of the movie builds it up to be. Further complicating matters is the fact that the crime, though relatively innocuous, is utterly tasteless and yet another reason that RSO is one of the world's worst boyfriends--yet, it's played for laughs.

Had Byington made a mockumentary about spoiled, snarky kids with toxic attitudes adjusting to life in the real world, this movie might have been tremendous--and only slightly less uncomfortable to watch. By appending the sex-offender angle, he titillates needlessly. In the group counseling scenes especially, I found myself wishing I were watching a documentary about actual sex offenders, rather than a cheap stab at using them as ironic wallpaper.

This is going to sound really weird, but I highly recommend this movie. It may bore you; it may make you feel like garbage; hell, it may even make you laugh. But as much as I hate to think I've given in to a filmmaker's dare, I can't deny that Registered Sex Offender really made me think. It's rare that I see a bad movie wrapped so snugly in the guise of a great one. I'll avoid fleshing out the obvious predation metaphor here and simply shrug, roll my eyes, and coolly mumble "Whatever" while signing off.

*I had the same problem with Catherine Keener for a decade, until I finally saw her play someone who could smile in The 40 Year Old Virgin.