Whatever "American Shopper" is, it's pretty damn clever.
The film threw me for a definite loop, and I'm still not sure I have it all straight. After watching this quirky documentary about an enterprising young man and the handful of colorful locals he rounds up to participate in his completely made-up sport of "aisling" - essentially, it's creative, choreographed shopping - I checked online to see what else I could find out about the film and its subjects. That's where I discovered the whole thing's a scam, one of the most convincing mockumentaries ever churned out on the indie scene.
Except! It's convincing because it's not a mockumentary, but the real deal. Well, sort of. Filmmakers Tamas Bojtor and Sybil Dessau have concocted what they're calling a "hybrid" movie, in which they take real people, inject into their lives an actor (everyone involved knows he's an actor), and then see what happens. The people are themselves, but maybe a made-up version of themselves, maybe not. Thinking back again and again on the film, I can't figure out where reality stops and fiction begins, and vice versa, and you can see why I'm still scratching my head.
The filmmakers are assisted in their rouse/not-a-rouse schemes by a still-growing trend in the movie community: the overly quirky doc. All you need these days to make a festival-friendly documentary, it seems, is a camera and a goofy subject, usually something about an unusual competition. The trend hasn't even become tiresome yet, as audiences remain thrilled by studies of air guitar, crosswords, old school Donkey Kong, and the like. Is "American Shopper," then, some sort of winking parody of the genre?
Yes, and no, although I don't think I'll ever figure out where the line is. No matter. "American Shopper" tells a fascinating story, and it always feels real. We come to care for these silly characters as real people. Which many of them are. I think.
At the center of the film is our lone truly fake character: Jonathan Sawyer, played by Jonathan Gostick. He's selling the good people of Columbia, Missouri, on the idea of competitive shopping, with a sport where points are awarded for movement, creativity, and "aislemanship." He envisions a future where aisling contests can be found nationwide, a future where fans across the globe will come to Columbia to visit the aisling hall of fame. Jonathan has dunked his life savings into this dream of his; we assume he's covering the $10,000 grand prize out of his own pocket. (Knowing this part is staged is reassuring after seeing Jonathan fork over a ton of cash to pay for stolen shopping carts.)
Here, the film can be brutally funny, as the filmmakers play up the absurdity of the situation. A security guard talks of in-store concerns in a post-9/11 world, and his earnestness is more biting than a more overt satire. Friends laugh about Jonathan's previous schemes, like when he assembled a gimmick-laden rock band, only to be kicked out when his new bandmates discovered he didn't play an instrument. Most entertaining are Jonathan's weird worries when contestants threaten to expand the sport beyond his fixed ideas; an anal retentive micromanager, his geeky nervousness can be a hoot.
The real stuff drops in when locals enter the competition, in hopes of becoming the first annual National Aisling Champion. Here, we meet Mike, who hopes to revive his old action dreams after years battling depression and homelessness; Chris, a loner with a growing gun collection; Aaron and Kelly, a happy (and highly competitive) young couple living the good life; divorcée Clare, enduring a midlife crisis; Wes, an average joe with a taste for raffles and sweepstakes; and Victoria, who doesn't care for games but loves that her ten-year-old daughter, Sarita, is having a ball aisling.
Like any good oddball-competition documentary, we pick our favorites early in "American Shopper," sorting out the shoo-ins and the longshots. We're devastated when one contestant blows it in the finals. We're wowed by unexpected victories. We follow the whole thing with the same tongue-in-cheek detachment as the ironic commentators hired to do play-by-play at the finals, yet we're also drawn in. Who are these people? Why would they commit so much time and energy into something as utterly bizarre as aisling?
Staged or not, the filmmakers do a wonderful job presenting each personal story to us in welcome detail; put the aisling aside and "American Shopper" becomes a sweet little peek into the lives of ordinary Americans getting through, day by day. A wonderful moment comes midway through the film as the filmmakers visit each main contestant on Thanksgiving, and we see these people not as characters, but as neighbors and friends.
And that's what makes "American Shopper" work. It's not whether or not it's real. It's real enough to us. Bojtor and Dessau have bent the rules in all the wrong ways to deliver something that works in all the right ones.
Video & Audio
"American Shopper" looks pretty darn good for an indie production of this sort. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is crisp, with sharp colors and lively detail.
The 5.1 soundtrack mix doesn't need a complete surround feel. Most of the dialogue remains cleanly and clearly up front, with Barbara Cohen's captivating musical score nicely balanced. No subtitles are provided.
Taken straight from the National Aisling League website, The "NAL Official Demo" (2:55) is a simple video offering examples of aisling, in case you need a way to convince your local officials to start up a neighborhood league.
Eleven deleted scenes (12:02 total) reveal extra character bits, all of which are thoroughly involving. (These were mainly removed for time, not quality, and it's a shame to see them not make the final cut.) Included is a lengthy alternate opening that follows Jonathan in his early days of moving to Columbia to get things started.
Two trailers (for fellow Cinema Libre releases "American Zombie" and "The Hole Story") round out the set.
Also included on the disc as a DVD-Rom extra is a copy of the official NAL rules and regulations, presented in PDF format.
"American Shopper" combines the fascination of real life with the smartass cleverness of mockumentary, delivering something that's always wonderfully entertaining. Recommended.