mope (/mōp/), noun, “a bottom-tier porn performer willing to do the dirtiest, most depraved work in the business.”
Mope, the directorial debut from Lucas Heyne, begins with a football huddle-style chant of
“bukkake,” which, if you are not aware, is a distinct pornographic act which I cannot describe in any amount of detail in this publication (frankly, I feel that the use of the term “bukkake” is only asking for the site’s SEO to go absolutely haywire. But, hey, that’s what this film is giving me). This introduction, while also quickly establishing the type of viewer this film is not for, does adequately establish two things: the depravity of the business in which the protagonists of the film work, and the unashamed camaraderie the two protagonists have as friends and co-workers in the adult entertainment industry.
These two protagonists are Steve Driver (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and Tom Dong (Kelly Sry). They go on from this dirty porn shoot to bond over their favorite pornographic directors and video games. Working in the adult industry is their dream, despite being relegated to “mope” status, which is to say that they are glorified extras on sets.
These two characters are sex-obsessed (they are in the right industry for it, I guess). The narrative beats of the film revolve around this obsession, with this dream. Steve’s save the cat moment, so to speak, is when he stands up for Tom by forcing his penis into Tom’s roommate’s face. In this sense, there is a purposeful ugliness to Mope. On the one hand, the ugliness by which the adult entertainment industry is depicted here de-sensationalizes it in a somewhat productive way (although the lack of realism becomes an apparent concern as the film progresses).
On the other hand, the ugliness bleeds into the heroes of the film in a way that makes their story inaccessible. They are certainly less ugly than the overtly racist and misogynistic characters that surround them, but they are nevertheless seedy and nevertheless unlikable (at least one-half of them is deeply homophobic and verbally objectifies women, for one). They are drawn as naive and idealistic, like Dirk Digglers for the internet porn age. What this script fails to realize, however, is that Boogie Nights is about porn in the same way that Nashville is about country music. This is to say that the industry is used as a symbol for larger cultural shifts. Mope is just about porn, and it treats the gravity of dealing with such a loaded, controversial sector of the entertainment business with a dangerous flippancy.
The basic narrative arc of the film involves Steve getting too big-headed about his role in the industry, a crazy and histrionic turn that feels entirely unmotivated given the character’s resounding lack of success, until we realize that mental illness is likely the cause. It is a character beat that never gets a proper explanation, and his mental illness is treated with the sensitivity of a possession film, with Steve running around set overtly assaulting his co-workers and screaming manically. The word “flippancy” comes to mind again…
In one breath, the film is a broad comedy about two dopes trying to be stars when all they will ever amount to are mopes. In the next, it is a gritty dark comedy about the perils of the entertainment industry, trying to grapple with the ramifications of institutional racism and stereotyping. The comedy is, for the most part, tone deaf to this latter darkness. The dark comedy is not incisive enough to make a dent in what is a genuinely serious and present concern in many industries. The result is a film that, for all its grime and bodily fluids, lacks bite.
Formally, Mope is adequately grimy. The film is shot mostly in queasy tight closeups. Otherwise, the backdrop is almost always low production value sets and dirty back-rooms. For all of the tonally appropriate mise-en-scene (which is pronounced differently than they pronounce it in the film), however, the camera work fails time and again to capture this world cinematically. Basic shot-reverse shot scenes are filmed in distracting, wobbly handheld.
There is a scene late into the film that indicates what Mope could have been. It is a harrowing, sad scene in a diner, in which a delusional Steve is confronted by his father. If this is the type of film Meyne and co-writer Zack Newkirk wanted to make, then there is no real excuse for the cheap jokes involving sexual situations in the first half of the film. Even this scene ends with a crude sex joke, a callback to emasculation fears that were never funny to begin with. Tonally, the film does not establish what it wants to achieve. As a result, that is all the film can hope to be: crude. It is a crude depiction of an industry, populated by crudely-drawn characters, with crude tone shifts that do not complement one another.
I have neglected to mention it up to this point, because it only confuses this tonal issue all the more, but Mope is based on the real-life violent altercation and murder carried out by an adult film actor at his place of work. The man later committed suicide after failing to evade the police. Given the broad depiction of mental illness in the film, as well as the initiation of the film as a comedy, the climax that relives this real-life altercation is the final ugly nail in the coffin. The final 15 minutes of Mope is anything but a comedy. It is a poorly-shot pair of sequences involving sexual and physical violence. This is in the same film that began with a joke about bukkake. Perhaps that is all that needs to be said on the matter.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)