Long before O'Reilly and Beck, Morton Downey, Jr., was tearing up the talk-show format with his divisive populism. Between the fistfights, rabid audience, and Mort's cigarette smoke always "in your face," The Morton Downey Jr. Show was billed as "3-D television," "rock and roll without the music." Évocateur meditates on the hysteria that ended the '80s and ultimately its most notorious agitator. Written by
Whether realized or not, Morton Downey Jr. has had a tremendous impact on my generation. Easily the redeeming factor of this film are the juxtapositions of Morton Downey Jr. in his heyday and Morton Downey Jr. post mordum.
The documentary is populated with gasp-inducing ("I remember that!" "I saw that when it aired!") moments, terrific vintage clips, and good interviews, especially with his long-time manager.
Morton Downey Jr. comes off completely accessible and a very self-aware guy. The tragedy of this entire project is the fact that the person at the film's helm is Kramer, who is intrusive, obnoxious, paranoid, xenophobic, and, most of all, so self-absorbed that every action Morton Downey Jr. makes (a tour of Vegas, to the Philippines, etc.) is about him. Not 30 flippin' seconds go by in this documentary, where Kramer isn't self-referential.
Morton Downey Jr. is shockingly gracious despite Kramer's repeated attempts at "gotcha" moments. Kramer is so arrogant that he actually interrupts a clip of Morton Downey Jr.' poignant childhood memory. He's the kind of "reporter" (term used very loosely) who isn't listening to his subject. Kramer has an agenda, and no matter how many times he refers to Morton Downey Jr. as his "idol," that agenda is a despicable one. Kramer's "fame" (Oscar for a short film) wasn't even a blip on the entertainment scene and he is determined to make this film about him.
If only Kramer had used this amazing opportunity to showcase Morton Downey Jr. -- who is certainly as interesting and engaging as he'd been in life, at the height of his fame -- this could have been a very remarkable film portrait. It wouldn't even have had to be a tribute; Morton Downey Jr. shows moments of curmudgeonly behavior (and really, who wouldn't be, in a smoker's half-coma), but Morton Downey Jr.' humor and undeniable talent deserve a showcase.
Kramer repeatedly (and cringing-ly) keeps asking questions that are the equivalent of "how does it feel to have been so famous and to become so irrelevant?" The truly horrible moment is when Kramer (who clearly has been chomping at the bit, stalking Morton Downey Jr. for years for this opportunity) makes those who remember Morton Downey Jr. awkwardly and uncomfortably sit through a late 70s-vintage television clip of a clearly high, Morton Downey Jr. hosting the "Mike Douglas Show." Kramer wants to make a film about himself, and frame it with a compelling subject like Morton Downey Jr.. For Morton Downey Jr. -- who being dead now, cannot generously consented to Kramer's cameras AND provided him with boxes of videos for the documentary (without these contributions there is absolutely no film) -- this film provides a reminder of Morton Downey Jr.. But he deserves so much better.
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