Heartland Film Festival 2019: ‘Guest Artist’ is an unrepentant, drunken mess
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?
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.
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.
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.
Featured Image: Heartland
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