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What Is It?

By: Addison Wylie

*NOTE: The review for Crispin Glover’s What Is It won’t be like the average review you’ve seen on this site. However, given that the subject and the subject’s film at hand aren’t like anyone or anything else, it feels appropriate to be writing this way. Anyways, carry on.*

Crispin Glover established himself as an actor with his early work in Back to the Future and River’s Edge. Lately, audiences have seen Glover in works involving Tim Burton such as Alice in Wonderland and 9. However, it was his infamous appearance on Late Night with David Letterman that gave him a label for being “out there” and “a bit of a weirdo”.

It was this reputation that polarizes us so much and even more so when we see Glover appear in lower-end mainstream work such as Epic Movie and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. Even his role in the first Charlie’s Angels threw people for a loop at first. But, then when they saw a scene where his character, The Thin Man, sniffed a lock of hair, everything was back to normal.

Why does Glover take on these roles? Perhaps, he sees some fun in them and, like everyone, we all have bills to pay. However, some may not know that Glover takes that money and invests it into his own projects. Projects that aren’t overseen by big movie studios and aren’t tied down to a strict shooting schedule.

Glover has made two films (What Is It and It Is Fine. Everything Is Fine!) and for the past several years, he has been touring all over the world with his features and his written works. After the film, he hosts a Q&A and explains his visions more thoroughly.

It’s impossible to talk about Crispin Glover’s directorial debut What Is It without mentioning this tour because I can guarantee you, What Is It will never get a theatrical release because Glover can’t be at every theatre in the world to explain the meaning behind his film.

That being said, I can’t quite describe my experience watching this enraging movie without giving a visual example.

Imagine a train. A train that moves slowly towards darkness. Slowly but surely, the track’s decline gets steeper and steeper until it’s barreling down at an unimaginable speed. Uncomfortable and wanting everything to stop, you grab the e-brake and start pulling, when suddenly, it snaps off. It’s not until then that you realize that for the next hour and some-odd minutes, you will be diving into a never-ending sinkhole. I can now understand why those families were so scared on Willy Wonka’s hell-boat.

What Is It is extremely incomprehensible and is quite often pretentious. We can understand that we’re supposed to be travelling through the main character’s mind as he struggles with issues both in the real world and with his own inner demons.

This premise definitely has potential and with Glover’s creative mind, this could’ve been a strong imprint to show audiences that the off-kilter actor is capable of much more. However, Glover doesn’t do a good job portraying that. A lot of what happens on screen makes sense to Glover but he fails to let us in.

From the word “go”, audiences will have a hard time connecting with the film. What Is It has audacious audio issues; some of the worst I’ve heard. It looks and sounds like the film was shot without a mic and then dubbed in post-production through a tin can telephone. To add more to your headache, every actor mumbles each line. When the cast isn’t mumbling, they’re rushing through dialogue and refusing to take a breath.

Over half  of the cast is made up of actors with either a mental or verbal disability. Glover stated in the Q&A that his intention with his movie is that he wanted to show audiences that people with down syndrome don’t always have to play people with down syndrome. Glover is absolutely right. That, and he has his heart in the right place.

However, it’s still his job as a director (and as a vocal coach) to help his cast with each line; whether they have a disability or not. He needs to explain that it’s ok to emphasize certain purposeful words and that reciting dialogue isn’t a race. Even Fairuza Balk, who is a trained and professional actress, is having a hard time reading her voiceovers.

It may have also helped for Glover to simplify the movie. That’s not an insult towards the cast, who I have no doubt could understand any screenplay when given proper directions, but this subject matter is told in such an abstract and closed off manner, that it’s difficult for anyone to understand it. Reading the scrolling credits at the end of the feature is a task in itself with roles as “Dueling Demi-God Auteur/The Young Man’s Uber Ego” and “Inner Sanctum Concubine”.

Glover also stated in the post-Q&A that he wanted to break taboos. He said that there aren’t adult movies made anymore. Again, good point. I mean, children can technically get into R-rated movies with an adult. He even stated too that theatres will refuse NC-17 films, thus, nullifying the amount of viewers during its theatrical run.

Glover does break taboos but with having no “line in the sand”, he has gone too far to prove his point. It was during the scene where a naked woman wearing a monkey mask was giving a man with cerebral palsy a sexual favour that my limit was pushed above and beyond. I had that feeling of wanting to leave and not wanting to be involved with the movie anymore.

Yes, Crispin. I understand you want to show that actors with disabilities can play any role a person with no handicap can play.

Yes, Crispin. I understand that you want to stick it to the industry and show adult things no one sees in cinema anymore.

But, for God’s Sake sir, do you have to immediately jump to the most extreme example you can think of?! How I understood the scene was that Glover was wanting to show the sexual thoughts going through our main character’s head but the execution is utterly tasteless.

The film has technical issues, acting issues, directorial and writing issues, but Glover’s main problem is that he has a thesis but is using such unusual and unstable arguments, that it makes his film a deplorable wreck.

I’m aware everyone has the potential to be an actor no matter who you are or what your background is. Plenty of actors with a disability have shown audiences everywhere that they “have the goods”. May they hope they never work in a Crispin Glover directed feature.

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  1. Al Wylie
    April 22, 2012 at 1:26 am

    Wow, I was there with you and not once did I see you taking notes and yet it’s like I am reliving it all over again. Addison you have an incredible memory. Your critique is clear, honest and accurate. Yes, the film was indeed twisted and disturbing but I found the follow up of Q & A’s with Crispin very intriguing. He is quite articulate and well… interesting to say the least. Thanks for asking me to go with you. There were images we witnessed together that made me …well..flashback to the film for the entire week.
    Is that a good thing? Crispin would believe so. I just hope I don’t dream of any of those images down the road….

  1. February 4, 2013 at 5:44 pm

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