Call Me Lucky opens today in New York, LA, and Austin, and expands wider in the coming weeks. Here’s my original review from Sundance.
On Sunday night, I stumbled into a comedy showcase put on Bobcat Goldthwait, wisely staying for the whole show even though it wasn’t my intended destination. I saw Bobcat alongside some famous and familiar faces, and one other guy I didn’t recognize. A grey-bearded chubby fella (he really looked like a “fella”) in a jean jacket who opened with some lighter material about his upstate New York accent (“the sound of tired resignation”), and soon moved into the kind of putting-the-system-on-trial comedy that Bill Hicks wannabes have been butchering for more than 20 years.
It was smarter than the usual version of that kind of comedy, but I remember thinking this set could not have been more wrong for the room. Sundance, one of the densest concentrations of fashionably liberal, rich and upper-middle-class folks, terminally uptight but theoretically tolerant — people this comfortable rarely want to smash the system. Nonetheless, the guy soldiered on, eking out laughs from an audience who probably wouldn’t agree with him. In another departure from the form, he finished on an earnest note rather than a “closer,” urging us all to “be present.” I swear to you, I happened to be pressing “send” on a tweet at the exact moment.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the guy who’d outed me as the world’s biggest asshole (if only to myself) turned out to be Barry Crimmins, the subject of Bobcat Goldthwait’s new documentary, Call Me Lucky. The film is essentially a Crimmins profile directed by a friend, explaining who this guy is and why he’s a hero, in that order — the perfect watch for the distracted and ignorant like me. But it’s more than just a loving portrait of an endearing curmudgeon, it’s also funny, touching, and so emotionally raw that critics in my row (people who probably saw 25 movies before this one) had to leave the room a few times just to mentally regroup. It’s can’t-turn-away compelling despite exploring a subject I’d just as soon run from, screaming.
About that. If you can, and you trust me, just stop reading here and see the movie. I recommend it without qualifiers. Call Me Lucky takes a hard left turn halfway into the movie (something I knew about ahead of time but sort of wish I hadn’t) and the order in which the information is presented is both effective and thematically fitting. I want to give this film the praise it deserves, but I also don’t want to ruin your experience. So, consider yourselves warned.
Barry Crimmins is something of a legend in the Boston comedy scene. He started the Ding Ho, a Chinese restaurant-cum-comedy venue where many notable names cut their teeth, including being the place where Bobcat debuted his growly voice and one of the places where ’80s stand-up comedy became “the comedy boom.” Crimmins, in addition to being feared and admired (for his volatile curmudgeonry and for his inherent truthfulness) by a who’s who of comedians you’ve heard of, is also something of a social-justice warrior. He didn’t just lampoon Reagan and the Bushes, he put his ass where his mouth was, risking (probably committing) career suicide by doing things like going to Nicaragua to speak on behalf of the Sandinistas. He’s always brutally, darkly straightforward in his views (and sincere) without surrendering his love of the comedic or the satirical. At one point Crimmins tells a live audience about performing to victims of the Contras in a Nicaraguan hospital, mimicking his reception by the crowd of amputees by hitting one hand against his chest, saying “I know the sound of one-hand clapping.” Crimmins “goes there” in every sense of it, and even just watching the performances on a screen had our audience’s jaws flopping open.
That’s basically the first half of the movie, and if Call Me Lucky was simply about Barry Crimmins: Boston legend and unfairly-forgotten truth-teller, it’d still be a good movie. The reason it’s a great one is that the second half goes even further. People like Crimmins, crusaders who seem pissed off about the state of the world, often get asked, “what are you so angry about?” The stock answer we’re all used to hearing is, “if you’re not angry, you aren’t paying attention!” Which might be true, but it’s still a deflection. Call Me Lucky doesn’t deflect. Its response is more like, “you want to know why Barry Crimmins is so angry? Oh, we’ll tell you, but you may be sorry you asked.”
The latter half of the movie covers Crimmins’ revelatory admission of his own sexual abuse at the hands of a babysitter. It’s not the least bit vague in this matter either, at one point communicated in typically unblinking Crimmins fashion, with a close-up on a Crimmins-penned personal account in the mainstream press headlined “BABY RAPE” being just one example. It’s beyond rare for a comedian to discuss baby rape in a way that’s not a set up for a joke, and equally unheard of for one to talk about it seriously, as a thing that actually happens, and then joke about something else in the next breath.
It’d be easy to hate Call Me Lucky for rubbing our noses in something so horrible, but it builds to something after it scrapes you raw. It becomes something of a hero’s journey when it follows Crimmins’ trip to Washington to testify before a Senate hearing urging AOL (this being the ’90s after all) to do something about all the child porn circulating in their chat rooms. Crimmins has lost weight by that point and has a haunted look about him from pulling To Catch A Predator, before that was a thing, anonymous chat-room visitors sending him pictures of themselves raping toddlers in a sort of real-life 8 MM but worse.
The guy has clearly seen things the rest of us can barely stand to hear someone talk about, let alone purposely bear witness to, and has put himself through it to help people he’s never met. So you don’t begrudge the film’s rather transparent attempt to turn him into a saint. You believe it. And Crimmins’ personal prickliness is like the squeeze of lemon that cuts right through the potential schmaltzy richness.
A lot of times, the job of a documentarian is as simple as choosing a subject people are interested in, and not f*cking it up. (Anyone who writes non-fiction knows that not f*cking it up is far from simple, but that’s another story). Call Me Lucky is the kind that only results from a singular combination of story and teller. That Bobcat Goldthwait desperately wants to do right by his friend comes through in every frame, and he tells the story well enough that you identify with him.
The Barry Crimmins depicted in the beginning of the film is a guy who can Trojan-horse smart political satire into Chucklehut sets before audiences expect observations of airplane food. “I think the ability I was given is to be able to talk to people about things they’d rather not hear about,” Crimmins says at one point. By the end of the film, you realize Bobcat Goldthwait has done the same thing. As I watched him move an audience from wanting to run out of the theater to wanting to hug the screen, I realized I’d seen him perform virtually the same act at his stand-up show a few days earlier, effortlessly bringing the audience to the point of tears with Robin Williams anecdotes to doing spit takes from his stories about the Gathering Of The Juggalos. By the end of Call Me Lucky, you realize that not only is Barry Crimmins’ story worth telling, Bobcat Goldthwait might be the only teller who could do it justice. The film has at least four endings, but by that point, none of us cared. We would’ve screamed for an encore anyway.
Further Reading: Martin Olson, who appears in the film, also interviews Bobcat and Barry here.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.