CHAINED FOR LIFE is an exploration in one of my favorite film sub-genres: films about making films, which just had its international premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival on July 18th. From Sullivan’s Travels (Howard Hawkes, 1941) to Hail Caesar (Coen Brothers, 2016), movies about the making of movies have been around for almost as long as movies themselves.
CHAINED FOR LIFE, which shares a title with a 1951 drama about conjoined twins, takes place in an upstate New York hospital, which is also the set of (the film-within-a-film) “The Undesirables”. Jess Weixler (Teeth, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby) stars as Mabel, the lead actress in the production. The Undesirables seems to be a mix between Freaks, Eyes Without A Face, and Beauty & The Beast. While shooting isn’t happening, the cast and crew roam the grounds of the hospital and find some time to get to know each other better.
The two lead actors of The Undesirables are Max (Stephen Plunkett; The Mend, Rise), an amiable enough guy who plays a German surgeon, and Rosenthal (Adam Pearson; Under The Skin, The Ugly Face of Disability Hate Crime), a funny, charming guy who also happens to have Neurofibromatosis, a condition which gives him enlarged tumors in the face. He plays the central love interest of Mabel’s character. The plot of The Undesirables from what one can surmise is that a mad scientist-y surgeon works in a hospital that specializes in curing bizarre maladies. Except for that of Mabel, who is only blind in the film. She falls in love with Rosenthal, who she can’t see. As any good ensemble cast, there are of course other “freaks” in the hospital: Conjoined twins Miriam and Eva (Miranda and Rebecca Gruss, respectively, who are just regular twins in reality), Demby (Daniel Gilchrist; Zombie Beauty Pageant, The Enuattii), the really tall guy, Aristotle (William Huntley; Enchanted), a dwarf, and a whole host of others.
And what’s a good film-within-a-film without a director? Herr Director is a (maybe-not-actually) German auteur that grew up in the circus (maybe but probably not) and wants to re-create his childhood on the big screen. An almost completely unrecognizable Charlie Korsmo (the nerd-turned-party-boy William Lichter in Can’t Hardly Wait) plays him to hilarious results in his first film role in 20 years!
In essence, The Undesirables is but one of many vehicles to hit home the core message of this film. The questions the actors and crew have about the film are ones that we as viewers have ourselves. The OTHER films within the film expand upon these themes and increase the already extremely high meta-factor in CHAINED FOR LIFE. The film asks “What is beauty? Why is it important? How far are we willing to go to attain it?” but additionally it points to the problems of exploiting people with disabilities and simply the problem of exploitation in general that is implicit in almost everything the entertainment industry does.
I loved the film and its dry humor, the jokes that point to other films, and the wacky twists and turns of plot that comes around every self-referential corner. I would say that it reminds me a lot of two of my very favorite film-within-a-film movies; Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore and William Greave’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One. I would be extremely surprised to hear that writer/director Aaron Schimberg wasn’t influenced by these in some way. He was also influenced by the controversial Tod Browning masterpiece Freaks. There are many times when the phrase “one of us” is said and I am immediately transported to the dinner table scene from the 1932 classic. In fact I see the director as a possible caricature of Browning.
Before I tell you everything else about this film, let me stop and just tell you it is absolutely worth seeing and Aaron Schimberg is a writer/director to look out for in the future. I’m proud to say this film was made in New York and hopefully one day I’ll run into Mr. Schimberg and ask him a million questions about this movie in person, even though he may find that a bit annoying.