Heartland Film Festival 2019: ‘Guest Artist’ is an unrepentant, drunken mess

Image from Heartland
Image from Heartland

In my history of covering film, I’ve sometimes had to confront a  prominent subject of my past endeavors that always seems to catch up  with me: the theatre. Sure, I did my fair share of high school drama (I  was even a tree!), and in a way, that experience led me down the path to  where I am today. I’ve always had a sincere respect for the medium, if  only by the effort required to properly do it. However, we live in a  complicated age for the medium, where the internet and bootlegging make  it easier to actually see these shows… and harder for said shows to  actually make money on seats. Compound that with an increased presence  by licensed works and acts intending to capitalize on an emerging teen  market to get that sweet Hamilton/Be More Chill virality, and it could cause one to question: in 2019, what does it mean to make true theatre, let alone art?

Image from IMDb

Enter stage right, Guest Artist. Directed by Timothy Busfield  and based off a true “incident,” it’s an odd couple story taking place  in a train station late one Christmas Eve. Joseph Harris (Jeff Daniels)  is a has-been playwright, coasting off his own legacy and finding solace  at the bottom of a flask. Kenneth Waters (Thomas Marcias, in his  feature debut) is an overeager writer’s apprentice hoping to literally  write the next great American play… and idolizes Joseph to no end. When  Joseph begrudgingly decides to write a play for a no-name theatre  company in the quaint town of Lima, Kenneth finally gets an opportunity  to meet his hero. Getting off on the wrong foot, Kenneth now has to  confront the real Joseph and convince him not to take the first train  back to New York. Shenanigans and the ultimate debate as to what “art”  and “theatre” ensue in the modern day. 

Except, it’s none of that. While the premise I have just described to  you may come off as a breeding ground for a unique back-and-forth  between the old and new, filtered through a medium potentially as old as  humanity itself, it simply isn’t. What Guest Artist truly  amounts to is a needlessly cliche redemption story, scored entirely by  public domain Christmas music and featuring two main performances that  seemingly set out to create the gritty, “real” Rick and Morty episode no one wanted. Daniels’ performance is the best of the entire film, even if his character is all but entirely one note. 

Image from IMDb

Meanwhile, Marcias, bless his heart, is stuck working with a script  that casts him as a practically incompetent fanboy, doing a perpetual  “Russel from Up” impression. He sucks up almost nothing but abuse  from his counterpart’s drunken raging against how the people of today  don’t understand true art. Speaking of, anybody in this film who doesn’t  qualify for an AARP card is seemingly depicted as stoner-like and  ignorant, either totally obsessed with their phones or being spooked at  the very thought of theatre. In fact, the film’s only character of color  literally remarks at how musicals “aren’t natural”, and Kenneth’s  perfunctory love interest literally asks him if theatre is something she  can get on her phone. I could tear further into some of the  rather “ambitious” leaps in logic it takes when trying to accurately  depict the current generation, but it’d take all day.

All of that said, the most reprehensible moment of the film comes at  the very end, where Kennith confronts Joseph about the secret play  Joseph somehow conveniently had in his luggage the entire time, and Ken  reads from it to inspire Joseph to not duck and run. Now, under normal  circumstances, a moment like this could be a genuine culmination of  narrative tension, allowing our characters to finally reconcile their  thoughts in order to finally achieve enlightenment. 

Image from IMDb

However, this is Guest Artist, and therefore the climax must  include the reveal that Joseph’s greatest work was a play about how we  deserved 9/11. As a sadly triumphant piano rendition of “Have a Holly,  Jolly Christmas” plinks along, Joseph cries as Kennith reads the elder’s  thoughts threadbare, saying that he didn’t cry because of all the death  and destruction that went down on that day but “because of how  beautiful the art coming out of it would be.” So much could be said for  the moral reprehensibility involved when we’re expected to sympathize  with a drunken, morally questionable man who can’t get his play about  how 9/11 was good for our country published because people would surely  be so triggered at such a thought. Yet, this film was based on a true  story, and if the end title cards are anything to go by, this godlike  theatrical work was eventually published and staged regardless. So,  effectively, all of this melodrama and raging against the dying of the  cell phone battery was pointless. 

If I haven’t made it painfully obvious enough, I wouldn’t recommend  this film to anybody below the age of fifty, let alone anyone with a  pulse. Guest Artist is a wholly unwelcome visitor, selling you  the inane ramblings of that one uncle at Thanksgiving dressed up like an  issue of The New Yorker. It thinks that it knows what it means and what  it takes to be a true artist, to create true “theatre,” but it just  simply doesn’t. There is nothing here of value that hasn’t been done  better elsewhere, from My Dinner with André to The Dead Poets Society to even the lightly incompetent technophobia of Jerry Bruckheimer’s G-Force.  You know that when the flipping guinea pig spy movie somehow manages to  do an arguably better job at critiquing modern society than your  prestige drama, you’ve screwed the film beyond the point of no return.

Images: IMDb

Featured Image: Heartland

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