The real-life characters in Billy Corben’s new documentary, Screwball, are represented in reenactments by 10-year-olds wearing wigs and fake muscle padding under their shirts, as they mouth the words being attributed to them by Corben’s cast of talking heads relating the story. It seems at first like a cutesy documentary conceit, something Morgan Spurlock, king of cutesy documentary conceits, would’ve cooked up in his heyday.
In Corben’s hands it’s certainly cutesy — how could little kids dressed like juiced up guidos not be? — but it also gets at something more. With his documentaries Cocaine Cowboys and The U for ESPN’s 30 for 30, Corben has already firmly established himself as the bard of South Florida, a sort of documentarian equivalent of Carl Hiaasen or Harry Crews. It’s easy to make fun of Florida, and Corben never (ever) wastes an opportunity for Floridian found comedy, but it’s a tougher task to explain Florida, to try to get at why it’s not just ridiculous, but also compelling.
That’s what Screwball does. Corben’s kid reenactments are more than just a fun way to tell the story. In some way they speak to the essence of what makes Florida Florida: that it’s a lawless place where the kids are running the school. Screwball‘s conceit turns the metaphor literal.
As someone who never particularly cared whether baseball players did steroids (I wish they’d all take steroids, the game was more fun then) I’d always wondered why the general public seems to hate A-Rod so much. Well, Screwball tells that whole story.
It starts with a Florida failson named Tony Bosch, a Cuban-American son of a doctor, who’s not quite good enough as a student to follow in his father’s footsteps. So he instead goes to Belize to get a dubious medical degree. He moves back to Miami, never having passed the boards to become certified to practice in the U.S., and parlays a serendipitous encounter with some bartenders that ends in him telling them how to cycle steroids into eventually opening an “anti-aging” clinic. It’s one of many wonderful origin stories in Screwball. Relying on his connections to Miami-area Cuban Americans, Bosch eventually gets Manny Ramirez as a client, reinvigorating Ramirez’ career before he gets caught.
Rather than ending Bosch’s career, Manny Ramirez getting popped only seems to jumpstart it. Working with Ramirez leads to A-Rod, and before you know it, Bosch is buying boats and snorting coke and cutting corners like every Miami success story before him. When his empire comes crashing down, it’s over the pettiest of asinine grievances.
Screwball becomes a real-life Elmore Leonard tale of interwoven underworld rivalries, where everyone is as corrupt as they are inept, culminating in what one character calls “the sweatiest interview in the history of live TV,” in which Bosch grants an old friend at ESPN an exclusive outside a bar where he’d been drinking all day.
The players in Screwball‘s story include a fake doctor (Bosch), a vain athlete (A-Rod, who has a painting of himself as a centaur and bribes fake pro-ARod protestors with free pizza), two mobbed up tanning bed magnates, a drug dealer, a “professional tanner”, and Major League Baseball.
Did you know the MLB has its own version of the FBI? They apparently spent this entire episode throwing money at “secret” files and tampering with witnesses, and the hardest thing to figure out is what their motive even is. Root out steroids? Cover up steroids? Shut up A-Rod? Protect A-Rod? Screwball‘s story is like an unraveling ball of yarn, and when it finally runs out you’re left scratching your head like the CIA agents in Burn After Reading, wondering what it is we learned. I guess we learned… not to do it again?
Lesson? This is Florida, there is no “why” here. Bottom line: no one tells a woolly tale of Floridian criminality, corruption, and ineptitude like Billy Corben, and Screwball is another classic.