Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Deal with Art in The Art of the Deal: Funny or Die’s Donald Trump “Biopic”

Johnny Depp and Michaela Watkins in Funny or Die’s Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie.

Although one would be hard pressed to say Donald Trump is a stranger to popular media, February 10th 2016 brought the celebrity businessman a seemingly unprecedented level of attention. For starters, he had just won the New Hampshire Republican primary by a landslide, defeating rivals Kasich, Cruz, and Jeb Bush while simultaneously baffling reasonable people everywhere. To coincide with this momentous (and frankly kind of horrifying) occasion, Trump was in the headlines of digital media outlets for a second reason: he had been portrayed in a new biopic by no less than Johnny Depp himself. Collaborating with a team of famous faces, director Jeremy Konner (Drunk History) and writer Joe Randazzo (The Onion) bring the story of Trump’s humble beginnings to the small screen. Or so production company Funny or Die would have you believe. Unbeknownst to people born after the year 1987, Donald Trump once wrote a book. More accurately, I should say “Donald Trump” once “wrote” a “book.” While he denies it through his teeth nowadays his book, Trump: The Art of the Deal, which sold well despite being largely bullshit in light of his numerous bankruptcies, was mostly (if not entirely) written by journalist Tony Schwartz—who describes the experience, in retrospect, as “put[ting] lipstick on a pig.” In Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie, Funny or Die crafts an outlandish 50-minute satire, presenting it as a long-lost companion piece to Trump’s and Schwartz’s bestseller. (Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie, formerly available for free on Funny or Die’s website, was exclusively launched on Netflix on August 1, 2016.)

The piece opens with an introduction by Ron Howard. The film we’re about to see, he says, is a relic, long “thought to be lost in the Cybill Shepherd blouse fire of ’89.” Having wrestled the last remaining VHS copy from a woman named Ginny at a yard sale, Howard is now sharing this priceless masterpiece with us so we too can finally comprehend Donald Trump’s finesse for dealmaking. The gag is pretty straightforward: the film is put forth as a made-for-TV adaptation of Trump’s book in the style of a late-80s afterschool special. A young boy (Emjay Anthony—and then Albert Tsai, Sayeed Shahidi, and Jacob Tremblay appear in a running joke that has Trump repeatedly replacing his child co-star with one of a more “favourable” minority) steals a copy of the famed book in Trump Tower and inadvertently runs straight into “the Donald’s” office to escape security. Trump, played by an unrecognizable Johnny Depp smothered in prosthetics and bad hair, takes the plucky youth under his wing and regales him with an in-person retelling of The Art of the Deal, highlighting his most astonishing (and, coincidentally, currently relevant) stories from the book. The story is told through flashbacks of events including his wedding to first wife Ivana Trump (Michaela Watkins) and the construction of Trump Tower, and it runs concurrent to his “present day” conflict with Merv Griffin over purchasing Atlantic City’s Taj Mahal Casino. While particularly nitpicky critics have pointed out that the movie is filmed in 16:9 aspect ratio which didn’t exist in the pretend filming date of 1988, Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie oozes with more than enough 80s charm to make up for it. The film quality is grainy and VHS-level bad. Scene transitions are accentuated with crappy graphics. The middle of the film boasts a rap scene. Most impressively of all the theme song, in all its tacky 80s power ballad glory, is performed by Kenny Loggins of "Danger Zone" fame. The Art of the Deal is as much a mockery of the decade itself as it is critical of Trump and it succeeds at making both look irredeemably silly.

Funny or Die productions are renowned for their star presence and The Art of the Deal is no exception. Cameos by Andy Richter, Christopher Lloyd, and Stephen Merchant are well-integrated and superbly funny. While the 1988 angle is a constant source of humour, the steady stream of familiar faces are a welcome respite from the sometimes overwhelming onslaught of “80s-ness.” Patton Oswalt is as non-threatening as he is decadent as Trump’s Taj Mahal nemesis, Merv Griffin. However; my favourite supporting performance, by and large, has to be Jack McBrayer as Trump Tower architect, Der Scutt. McBrayer takes the uneasiness expressed by the rest of the supporting cast and cranks it up to 11, laughing nervously as Trump tells the Kid (at this point, Tsai’s Japanese American character) that Scutt is a Nazi and expressing just the right amount of exaggerated reluctance as Trump insists that any proposed Trump Tower model must be surrounded by tiny plastic people, each with individual backstories. As for the title character, it took me a solid ten minutes to recognize Johnny Depp buried under the pounds of makeup and strawberry blonde 80s hair. In The Art of the Deal, Depp puts his incredible transformational skills to work, adopting Trumpisms and an obnoxious New York dialect. Slipped between these characteristics that are so definitively “Donald Trump,” he adds a hefty dose of weirdness: posing in strange lunge positions or sitting cross-legged on his desk, obliviously recounting his undeniably homoerotic meet-cute with former lawyer Roy Cohn (Paul Scheer), or obsessively mentioning that his peers are constantly in fear of him seducing their wives. Depp is excellent—but I can’t deny the bile rising in my throat as Depp’s Donald belittles and abuses Watkins’s Ivana, in light of the overwhelming domestic violence allegations made against Depp by ex-wife Amber Heard. Criticism gets murky here: the artist undermines the art in this case, unfortunately. Is it fair to praise an artist’s performance and ignore the fact that he’s a garbage human being? Maybe not, but I’m doing it anyway.

The lingering question in my mind as the United States presidential election looms ever near, however, is what is the point to any of this? Donald Trump has proven himself to be the poster (man)child for the phrase “all press is good press” so is giving him any more attention really worth it? While Funny or Die obviously can’t be held accountable for Trump’s bizarre political success (allegedly, they hustled through production of The Art of the Deal because they assumed Trump’s campaign would be short-lived), the scary times we live in force some uncomfortable questions about comedy’s time-honoured status as a sanctuary from heavy issues. Superficially, Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie is a quirky, weird, funny little film worth watching. It criticizes Trump by making him look foolish, aiming to diminish whatever strange power he holds for an astonishingly large chunk of the populace—but a nagging voice in the back of my mind reminds me that only those unmoved by Trump’s façade will be in on the joke. Ultimately, while it might not change any voters’ minds, and it might inadvertently fuel the raging trash fire that is Trump’s campaign, Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie gives us the impression that, even if the world is crashing and burning, at least we’re in (mostly) good company.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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