What a strange, strange film This is Not a Test turned out to be. Hats off to writer/director Christopher Angel for having the chutzpah to fuse a tart romantic comedy with political satire, dosing it with a bit of self-referential, neurotic surrealism. The plot's sheer daffiness -- nebbishy L.A. graphic designer Carl (Harper Hill) becomes consumed by the possibility of biochemical attack, putting a strain on his marriage to the spunky Viv (Robinne Lee), while Tom Arnold, playing himself, offers advice -- is a big help in getting Angel's film over some of its rougher spots.
There's no denying the timeliness of Angel's film -- in some ways, this plays like the goofy antecedent of the gripping what-if Right at Your Door -- but there's also the matter of Angel swerving between banal, cutesy rom-com situations (blind dates, a couple trying to have children) and gruesome apocalyptic scenarios.The filmmaker is simply underlining his point -- that Americans seem to be obsessed with the fear-mongering engendered by the Bush administration -- but when you lapse into dinner party scenes that feel like nothing more than heavy-handed exposition, you've strayed from a good balance of laughs and food for thought.
The cast is game -- Harper and Lee have an engaging chemistry -- but This is Not a Test nods off whenever Arnold isn't onscreen (and when's the last time anyone said that?) and given his loopy energy, one wonders why Angel didn't make the film less about marital give-and-take and more about Arnold's cockamamie "mentoring" of the hapless graphic designer.
This is Not a Test also suffers from unfortunate timing: Now that a new president, with fresh ideas and policies, is in place, Test feels a bit like a relic. While Angel's film ultimately wrestles with what it means to be a man in today's high-strung society, the relentless nods to the Bush administration often make the film feel grounded in an America that no longer really exists.
Presented in a passable 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, This is Not a Test looks sharp and clean, with a hint of grain evident (notably in the more lowly lit scenes). Befitting a recently filmed production, there are no discernible visual flaws and the colors are rich and vibrant. Nothing to complain about here.
As with the visuals, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack gets the job done, conveying dialogue, score and effects with no distortion or drop-out. Every breathless Arnold aside is heard clearly, as is Alan Lazar's score. Again, no complaints here. An optional Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is included, as are English and Spanish subtitles.
Angel, Harper and Lee sit for a commentary track, while Angel and Arnold also sit for a scene-specific commentary track. The trio has an easygoing chemistry and wastes little time getting into the political specifics, while the duo holds on for dear life -- Arnold gives Angel crap about his Mercedes sustaining damage at one of the film's locations -- and don't delve too deeply into anything beyond Arnold's ramblings. A one minute, 22 second alternate opening (presented in anamorphic widescreen) is offered with optional Angel commentary as is a three minute, three second alternate ending (presented in anamorphic widescreen) with optional Angel commentary. Eleven deleted/extended scenes (presented in anamorphic widescreen) are offered with optional Angel commentary and the film's theatrical trailer (presented in anamorphic widescreen) completes the disc.
This is Not a Test is quite the odd duck -- writer/director Christopher Angel blends tart romantic comedy, political satire and self-referential, neurotic surrealism to middling effect. The plot, in which a nebbishy L.A. graphic designer becomes consumed by the possibility of biochemical attack, putting a strain on his marriage, feels a bit stale in the Age of Obama, but the performances (and, strangely, Tom Arnold) helps the film limp to the finish line. Rent it.