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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Genuine Nerd
Genuine Nerd
Tempe Entertainment // Unrated // July 25, 2006
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted July 10, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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The Product:
The world has very few genuine characters – individuals whose unusual or unique persona clearly defines them and places them high above the everyday quagmire of the normal human populace. Often referred to as 'eccentrics' or 'oddballs', these decidedly different drummers tend to live along the fringes, only rarely making their way into the mainstream periphery. On rare occasions, however, they become famous, known as much for their talent as their weirdo tendencies. In other cases, they stay in the shadows, quietly practicing their idiosyncrasies out of the glare of the judgmental social limelight. If it wasn't for Harvey Pekar and his underground comic American Splendor, the world might not know Toby Radloff. Even after appearances in the big screen adaptation of Splendor, and a few cult films, including Killer Nerd, Bride of the Killer Nerd, and Townies, Radloff is still not much of a household name. Long time friend and frequent collaborator Wayne Alan Harold hopes to change all that with his lo-fi documentary Genuine Nerd. He almost succeeds.

The Plot:
At age 49, Toby Radloff is still a dork. This self-proclaimed nerd whose minor cult celebrity can be attributed to a combination of abnormality and accessibility is truly a geek's geek. Living a life that is one part happenstance and three parts hamburgers (White Castle being the preferred repast), this sensationally strange VA file clerk not only marchers to his own individualist tune, he sets the bizarre melody and harmonies himself. In a life filled with trials and tribulation, Toby has remained steadfast in his radical approach to things. He's vehemently anti-drug, acknowledges a horrible temper, and tends to think of his daily existence as a series of solutions that he must determine the proper problems for. When local Ohio filmmaker Wayne Alan Harold came across Toby, he was still part of the ancillary aspects of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor comic. Seeing a potential icon in this nascent nonconformist, Harold featured him in some work he was doing for MTV. Suddenly, Radloff was a minor fixture on the music video channel, a novelty he parlayed into a few feature films (always under Harold's Indie imprint). Now, after years in and out of the limelight, the director has decided to document Toby's twisted life.

The DVD:
Fun, superficial and a little lacking in necessary information, Wayne Alan Harold's documentary profile of Toby Radloff, Genuine Nerd, is an engaging if aggravating biography. Featuring a few familiar faces (Harvey Pekar and Judah Friedlander appear, among others) and a basic talking head approach to his narrative, Harold hopes that Toby's tale and his overall geekiness can overcome a severe lack of big budget ballyhoo. For the most part, he's right. Radloff is an amazing find, a self-styled stick in the mud that enjoys his life as a lamentable loser a little too much. He's a man who lives by his convictions – and more frighteningly – his obsessions, and often oversteps the bounds of normalcy to find himself lost in a cockamamie cosmos of his own creation. He's a sad figure, regrettable in his lack of social skills and connection to reality, and yet he can deliver a diatribe on subjects (drugs, disrespect) that make other arguments sound silly. He also harbors some unhealthy and, dare it be said, racist views about people and places, and he tends to repeat himself when confronted with ideas that correct or confuse him. Still, beneath his thick-rimmed glasses, button down shirts, and school picture haircut is an interesting fellow just waiting to be freed.

Unfortunately, Genuine Nerd doesn't offer us enough information to forgive Radloff of his occasional flummoxing faux pas. Instead of digging into his past, giving us information about family, growing up and coming into his own, Harold starts at the point where our hero meets Pekar, and then more or less moves on. While there are hints of high school horrors (and an admission that, on one occasion, Radloff's temper may have careened completely out of control) and initial issues with the VA job, Genuine Nerd skips over the history and focuses almost solely on the current. The interviews with others don't help our lack of personal perspective. Pekar, who appears to be waiting for a bus while being interviewed, delivers what must be by now a standard Radloff spiel. You can boil down his comments to "He was odd, we hung out, I put him in my comic." End of insight. Friedlander, who played Radloff in the film version of American Splendor is a little more animated, but he generally says the same thing. For him, Toby remains a caricature, a set of tics and temperaments that had to be mastered in order to portray him accurately on screen. It is during these minor moments when Genuine Nerd betrays its basics. It is not really an attempt to get to the bottom of who Radloff is. It's just one friend's filmed celebration of his weird buddy's peculiarity and faux fame.

Thankfully, Radloff is a much more interesting interview subject. His discussion of White Castle hamburgers borders on the obscene, and would make wonderful ad copy if it didn't sound so 'sexual' in nature (there's just something in the way Toby's eye light up when he says 'juicy'). Similarly, a third act rant about why he had to move brings out the white flight facets of Radloff's reasoning. It's a terribly troubling thing to witness. While he doesn't come out and state specific minorities and his misgivings, our subject does stipulate that everything in his old neighborhood was fine until a "certain element" moved in. Next thing we know, he is over-generalizing about everyone whose on welfare and/or other kinds of government assistance and asserting that such a malfeasant mindset has a basis in race. It's an unexpected moment in what is an otherwise logistical love letter to a seemingly gentle dork. Since Harold never silences his friend, he must believe this material humanizes Radloff, taking him out of comic icon mode and painting him in pigments far more familiar. Yet it's hard to understand what such statements accomplish. Up until this time, Radloff appears like a dopey dreamer. Learning that he bears ethnicity based prejudices – and isn't ashamed of airing them on camera – muddles our otherwise earnest view of this loveable loner.

It's a good thing then that this sequence comes near the end of the film. Before it arrives, we can enjoy the anecdotes about making movies, Toby's tour of his current domicile, a dinner party where Radloff is a complete outsider, or a lesson in decorating one's truck with duct tape. On several occasions, Harold just asks a question and then lets the video roll – Radloff does the rest. Still, it would be nice to hear about his personal life – family and friends, romances and rituals. Some Internet information sources claim that Toby suffers from Asperger's Syndrome (a condition which limits an individual's social and communication skills) but nary a mention of it is made here. In addition, we don't know anything about his current situation. He is collaborating again with Harold on a film called Aberration Boulevard, but beside that, his present personal and professional life is barely discussed. It's almost as if the filmmaker wanted to capture his character at a specific moment in time, without the past to shape him or the present to frame him. As a strategy, it almost works wonders. Radloff really exemplifies the title description – and that's about all. While he is an individual worthy of a much more detailed dissection, this is all Wayne Alan Harold if offering, for better or worse. In the case of Genuine Nerd, it's a little of both.

The Video:
Presented in a decent 1.33:1 full screen image, the transfer of Genuine Nerd belies its limited financial facets. This is a camcorder/DAT production all the way, and no amount of interesting angles or invention can lessen the homemade facets. Still, for what we get here, the colors are correct and the details dynamic. Some of the interiors are underlit, and the exterior scenes occasionally suffer from overexposure to the sun, but overall, the picture is pretty good.

The Audio:
There is not much to say about the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 presentation. The dialogue is discernible and other aural elements are clear and crisp. This is still an internal microphone production, and such a camcorder recording style can create a flat, featureless atmosphere. As long as Toby's comments come across in an easy to understand matter, that's all that really matters, right?

The Extras:
Unless you own a DVD-Rom drive, there is not a great deal of added content here. We get some derivative deleted scenes (no real insights offered), a couple of web clips (fun) and a trailer for the film. All in all, a pretty mediocre collection of bonus features. However, when you access the disc via your computer, there are over ten hours of audio files you can click on and listen to. Without this material, this digital package would be rather underwhelming. With it, it's a fun exploration of an eccentric fellow.

Final Thoughts:
For those who've never seen Radloff in all his retro-retard regalia, Genuine Nerd will be a jaw-dropping window into this incredibly insular world. Without the context that comes from other appearances, or his place in Pekar's career, he seems like just another crackpot being given his 15 minutes of ersatz celebrity by a friend with a camcorder. But as part of Toby's oeuvre, beginning with the marvelous Nerd films and ending with his unique appearance in the film version of American Splendor, this documentary acts like a super-sized screen test. In fact, when viewed as a visual portfolio of one man's eccentric personality, Genuine Nerd easily earns a Recommended rating. It paints a portrait both pleasing and problematic of this one of a kind find. If you want to know more about his man, his past and his present however, you will definitely need to look elsewhere. This film already knows that Toby is a treasure among idiosyncratic entities. It just can't be bothered in getting to the reasons behind his glorified geekdom.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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