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SXSW Review: ‘American: The Bill Hicks Story’

March 13, 2010

I’ve never heard of Bill Hicks before this movie. In fact, when I first heard about the film, I thought it was a fan mockumentary about Kevin Smith’s character Gil Hicks, the sorry sap from Mallrats whose idea of showing a girl a nice time opened with letting her shop at the places she wanted to shop. But it wasn’t about Gil, it was about Bill.

Bill Hicks was an American comedian in the vein of Sam Kinison or more recently Lewis Black—the angry, shrieking outragers who savage the spirit of their times and stomp around the stage menacingly, careful not to slip on their own froth. And he was also very funny, too.

However, it takes An American: Bill Hicks a while to get to them—the first half hour or so focuses on his early life, his entrance into the world of stand-up at a precocious 15, his heavy reliance on drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes, and his early rise to fame. This is done through a few interviews with his mother (who was in attendance), his brother (in attendance as well), and some fellow stand-up friends (check and check). Their words play over photographs of the young Hicks that turn static, 2D photos into 3D animations with fore and backgrounds, movement, and charm.

But it’s very dull. For one, not knowing Hicks is a detriment to any viewer, as the filmmakers go straight into his early life without any explanation as to why we should be interested. His early life has some points of interest but nothing especially engaging for anyone but the dedicated Hicks fans.

The animations are overused, too. When they first appear, they’re impressive, but the neat trick wears itself out quickly when you realize it’s foremost among the three in the director’s repertoire—the other two being a straight-on shot for interviews and stock footage.  And for an hour-and-forty-five-minute running time, you want a little variety to keep your attention.

The latter half of the film covers some of the more significant events in Hicks’ life—his delicate sobriety, trips to the UK (which I believe was the primary inspiration for the British filmmakers of American), and spat with David Letterman—but they’re glossed over for more interviews of the same people, talking about the same, same, same things we’ve heard them say for the last hour and so. A fellow critic and fan of Hicks mentioned that he shared some mushrooms with his elderly, deeply conservative father—that in itself would have been a high point of the film if it had been addressed. But it wasn’t.

Nor is Hicks’ influence on other comedians, which the filmmakers noted was their intent. Or maybe it was about his willingness to criticize American politics. Or his willingness to face death from lung cancer at the too-young age of 32. The last half brings in so many intriguing plotlines, it’s criminal that they’re never followed up. Instead, American: The Bill Hicks Story is just a long life in pictures, more apt for a wake than the theatre…and very, very long.


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