Perhaps the most oddball selection at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, Gutterbee explores a multitude of serious issues that plague the American heartland, all wrapped up in the silliest of packages. After a strong start, the film becomes bogged down by the various strands it half-heartedly pursues and swallowed up by its own sprawling inanity, leaving a disappointingly sour aftertaste in the mouths of those who sit through its puerile storyline.
Set in the eponymous fictional town in rural America, the film concerns itself with Edward (Ewen Bremner), an eccentric German ex-pat who prays at the altar of sausage and dreams of opening up his own restaurant dedicated to the foodstuff in this backwater boondocks. Standing in his way is puffed-up bigot Jimmy Jerry Lee Jones Junior (W Earl Brown), who spends his time hosting cabaret nights designed to help the townspeople expand its population and running foreigners out of town. Meanwhile, his one-time henchman Mike (Anthony Starr) has just been released from a two-month prison sentence for exactly that sort of petty intimidation.
After befriending Edward, Mike sees a way out of his criminal existence by teaming up with the German and helping him realise his ambitions, but still feels beholden to his old boss. To make matters more complicated, roving preacher Luke (Clark Middleton) puts pressure on Jimmy to destroy the fledgling eatery, since he views it as a threat to the already slim pickings that his sermons bring into the church coffers. In this way, the film pitches the full might of Christianity against the humble sausage, complete with a barmy back story of oppression and persecution.
The wacky, whimsical tone is set early on with the introduction of a racist rooster, a quirky soundtrack including tracks such as “Lederhosen Gangsta” and the near-total replacement of liquor with lemonade and cigarettes with chewing gum. Underneath the absurdity, however, it’s clear that writer, producer and director Ulrich Thomsen is aiming to expose more weighty issues. Jimmy’s homophobia towards his own son Hank (Joshua Harto), for example, is highlighted as a symptom of a broken society – if the message seems too subtle at the outset, the symbolism of the sausage itself and a nauseatingly perverse climax to the film will leave the viewer in no doubt. Other subjects touched upon in this manner include Jimmy’s proudly displayed xenophobia, the grasping greed of the Church and the bullying mentality often employed in small towns of this kind.
While a defter hand could have balanced the screwball comedy with these deeper themes – as is regularly achieved by figures such as Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris – Thomsen struggles to replicate that success. The opening half hour is promising enough, with just enough zaniness to proceedings to keep them light and airy, while Bremner excels (as he often does) in the role of the unconventional but lovable outsider. However, things go south not long after the opening act, as Thomsen quickly becomes unable to keep all of the thematic plates spinning and prevent his decidedly acquired taste in humour from over-spicing the sausage.
The final half hour makes for particularly difficult viewing. In an apparent bid to keep things interesting and unpredictable, the storyline veers wildly all over the place; characters’ motivations and alliances chop and change at the drop of a hat, creating incoherence and diminishing credibility in an already preposterous setting. Meanwhile, the bringing to the fore of Jimmy’s relationship with his son could have made for a sensitive and meaningful resolution to the piece, but instead it’s handled with sickening tastelessness.
These misfires are all framed by a structure that never really sits right. The use of a jaded cop (Chance Kelly) to narrate proceedings echoes Sam Elliott’s Stranger from The Big Lebowski, but the character has neither the charisma nor the clout to pull off the role persuasively and his complete absence from all scenes where illegal activities take place make him something of a redundancy, which is not saved by an even less convincing development to his character at the film’s close.
All in all, Gutterbee is a movie with grand ambitions and a keen sense of humour, but one which is able to keep neither in check. After a promising start to both the narrative and the gag reel, each falls prey to its own try-hard nature, overwhelming the viewer with substandard fodder, while a punch-drunk approach to tackling the larger themes makes that facet a failure, too.