I always want to like the films of Alex Cox, but more often than not, it doesn’t work out that way. Maybe he gets a lifetime pass for Repo Man, or maybe I’m being too generous. This weekend I rented his two most recent features, one of which offers flashes of the good Alex Cox, the other of which should have him brought up on charges before a war crimes tribunal. (Yeah, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s the sort of overheated rhetoric Cox himself is prone to deploying in his weaker efforts.)
First up is Searchers 2.0, a road movie, buddy comedy, and off-kilter homage to the films of John Ford and the spaghetti westerns beloved by Cox. I had originally planned to see Searchers 2.0 a couple years ago when it was scheduled to play the Alamo Drafthouse, and in fact, I interviewed Cox for The A.V. Club in anticipation of that event. The screening never happened, for reasons that don’t make the director look good at all, but I finally caught up with the movie on DVD. Del Zamora and Ed Pansullo, two Cox regulars dating back to Repo Man, star as Mel and Fred, rarely employed actors who discover a shared past and mutual loathing of an abusive screenwriter after a chance encounter. Along with Mel’s daughter Delilah (the lovely and possibly talented Jaclyn Jonet), they set out to Monument Valley, where the hated screenwriter Frobisher (Sy Richardson, another longtime Cox vet) is scheduled to introduce an outdoor screening of his magnum opus.
In some ways, Searchers 2.0 resembles Three Businessmen, a relatively obscure Cox film I’m quite fond of. Both are low-budget, dialogue-heavy road pictures, primarily concentrating on two mismatched characters who find common ground along the way, but Three Businessmen is much more successful at channeling the surreal vibe and absurdist humor that made Repo Man one of my all-time rewatchables. Searchers 2.0 is at its best when Mel and Fred are talking movies, getting almost all the details wrong (they can’t even agree on the title of the western they both appeared in, and their Charles Bronson/Clint Eastwood debate will never be reprinted in Cahiers du Cinema), but conveying a love of the medium nevertheless. When the dialogue turns political, the characters get fuzzier; it’s clear that they’ve become mouthpieces for Cox’s ideology, whether it fits them or not. The grand finale, a Sergio Leone-esque showdown in Monument Valley in which the ammunition is movie trivia rather than bullets, sort of won me over. But it was a close call.
No such luck with Repo Chick, easily the shoddiest, most cynical, and ultimately worthless film of Cox’s career. The title is the first clue that this radical filmmaker, who claims to have been blacklisted by Hollywood, is trying to cash in on his past success. For the record, I have no real problem with that; I don’t even care that Repo Chick is in no way a sequel to Repo Man, except in its exploitable title. If he’d managed to make an engaging film set in the same world as Repo Man, or even a movie that replicated the creative energy of its predecessor while having nothing at all to do with it in terms of plot, setting or character, I would have been absolutely fine with that. The timing was certainly perfect, as Repo Chick uses the recent economic crisis, and the mortgage meltdown in particular, as fodder for Cox’s return to the world of repo workers.
The protagonist this time is Pixie (Jonet again, but worse), a thinly-veiled Paris Hilton, disinherited by her wealthy family and forced to take a job repossessing cars, houses, trains, planes, hotels, and whatever else may have been defaulted upon when the bubble burst. Pixie and her posse of faux-punks in tattoo sleeves (all of whom would have gotten their asses kicked by the Repo Man punks, which I hope was the point) stumble onto a plot by a radical group to destroy Los Angeles unless the President becomes a vegan and bans golf. A funny idea, sure, but the movie itself is such a slipshod mess, and Cox heaps such sour contempt upon all the characters, it’s impossible to care at all. Shot entirely on green-screen sets for under $200,000, Repo Chick is an assault on the senses in all the wrong ways. The backdrops are hastily sketched comic-book drawings, chintzy video-toaster effects, and ridiculously obvious models – HO-scale trains, Matchbox cars, bars made out of shoeboxes.
No doubt Cox would defend the blatant artifice as a creative decision – a representation of the shallow chintziness of our dead-end consumer culture – but really, it just looks like he doesn’t give a shit. Seriously, if the script was witty, and if the acting wasn’t terrible, I might embrace the cheesy look of the movie and be able to justify it. That’s just not the case. The jokes are inane (“Show her the ropes!” “So where are they?” “What?” “The ropes! Where are they?”), the performance are one-take rejects littered with botched line readings, dropped accents, and mispronunciations, and the whole thing just looks like the worst public cable access show of 1992. Honestly, it seems like Cox decided the name Repo Chick on a DVD box would move enough units to justify its existence. And if that’s the case, he has more in common with the studios he holds in contempt than he realizes.