Michael Shannon in Pottersville.
You’ve gotta hand it to the trailer for the newly released motion picture Pottersville: The concluding title card of “In Theaters on November 10” is not, technically, a lie. This past Friday, the new holiday comedy made its grand debut, but nowhere in my home of New York City — the nearest publicly available screening was slated for a small movie house in the hamlet of Hamilton, a lovely college town a couple hundred miles upstate. Hamilton’s proudest distinction has to be hosting the campus of Colgate University, but they also happen to have provided the backdrop for the principal photography of Pottersville. Consider the fact that local government backed this project as part of a coordinated effort to establish northern New York as a hot spot for film productions, and this might start to make a little more sense.
Dinky little movies live and die in silence all the time, so inquiring parties may be wondering what makes this one worthy of note. While Pottersville has the humble production values of a tax-funded boondoggle, director Seth Henrikson somehow wrangled a cast of beloved character actors for one of the more perplexing, deranged films it has ever been my pleasure to witness. Call it a Christmas miracle or call it blackmail, but that sure is Michael Shannon, Judy Greer, and Ian McShane right there on the screen, Christmas-hamming it up for the amusement of an audience that does not exist. (The poster is a hastily Photoshopped sight to behold.) Seemingly made for $32, boasting a who’s who of actors that deserve better work, and all but exhibited in private, it is now essentially the most extravagantly cast home movie ever made. My morbid fascination piqued, I managed to track down a digital screener and gave it a watch this weekend. A viewer walks away from the experience with a few burning questions, which I’ve now posed below:
What does Michael Shannon think alcohol does to the human body?
Academy Award nominee and red-carpet sensation Michael Shannon steps in for Pottersville’s lead role of kindly shop proprietor Maynard, the kind of swell who can’t help but let a financially struggling mom make her purchases on credit. He’s pretty much George Bailey, but paired with the intense, unsettling visage of Michael Shannon. That generous streak — along with the dag-blasted economy, a Big Theme this film seems aware of in a vague, far-off sense — has left him in dire fiscal straits of his own, and all it takes is one bad day to drive him off the deep end.
The plot gets up and running when Maynard tucks into a bottle of hooch and starts wandering around town in a gorilla costume, as one does. If you read that sentence and thought, Hmm, I’d have to be really, really drunk to dress up like an ape and start galavanting around my hometown, then Michael Shannon’s right there with you. At least, that’s my only guess as to why he goes so far over the top that the top is barely visible to him as a pinprick from his god’s-eye-view in the acting stratosphere. He plays his stupor as if alcohol contained a potent combination of psychedelics and sedatives, like he’s a high-schooler who once had a glass of Champagne at their uncle’s wedding and now must make his best approximation of drunkenness. It’s documented fact that he’s not only a better actor than this, but a better drinker, and so the only remaining explanation would be that he’s going for irony to compensate for the goofy script.
But what sort of day could be bad enough to drive Maynard to this dark night of the soul, and why would he go for the monkey suit? Both questions have the same answer.
Who is handling Christina Hendricks’s career?
Hands down and without question, the most puzzling, disturbing sequence of the film is the one early on, when Maynard decides to come home early to surprise his wife, only to find her in flagrante delicto. The unexpected part is that she’s wearing a bunny costume, and her man-piece is sporting a wolf getup. The really unexpected part hits when they pop off their heads and reveal that Christina Hendricks and Ron Perlman both agreed to be in this film.
In the years since Mad Men brought its run to a conclusion, Hendricks should have shot to the top of the A-list. Her stint as long-suffering secretary turned executive Joan Holloway proved that she wields an extensive arsenal of emotion, as she slid between cooing seduction and fiery anger, sometimes in the course of a single scene. But scan her filmography since 2015 and you’ll find Zoolander 2, Bad Santa 2 (in which she defines the term “felching”), a bit part in Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest, and dead-on-arrival studio comedy Fist Fight. At least she’s been reliably hilarious on TV’s Another Period, but still, it’s the same brand of sophomoric comedy. It’s entirely possible that Christina Hendricks just has a strange and extremely specific sense of humor she’s intent on pursuing, but it would make more sense to picture her and her agent in a sort of Brian Wilson–Eugene Landy situation.
Her role in Pottersville drags this recent streak to its nadir. Her character makes not a lick of sense, hysterically crying from inside a bunny suit that she’s “just so bored!” and so she had to strike up a furry affair with the local sheriff! She seemingly exists to be mocked and to serve as a delivery system for various jokes about furries. And there are a lot of jokes about furries.
Has writer Daniel Meyer been wronged in some way by the furry community?
It would not be entirely inaccurate to describe Pottersville as a film centrally about furries, or at least more interested in the furry lifestyle than in Christmas. Maynard catching his wife red-handed — er, red-pawed — is just the beginning, as we soon learn that the town plays unwitting host to a thriving furry underground of approximately 35 members. The leader insists that their biweekly meet-ups are not sexual in nature, but much like the “asexual computer repair” from Nathan for You, denying it comes off as more suspicious than having said nothing at all. Judging from their portrayal in the film as conniving, unfaithful oddballs, Pottersville screenwriter Daniel Meyer doesn’t hold the furry community in very high esteem.
In a production where everyone’s got that dead-eyed “where’s my check?” sort of look, Meyer may be the only one approaching this film as a personal project. The film’s baffling fixation on furry culture must be the result of some long-buried past trauma; Meyer’s working through something personal here, perhaps a girlfriend who kicked him to the curb for a strapping raccoon, or maybe a mother who ran away with a sexy hedgehog. These are the unanswerable mysteries of Pottersville, riddles only to be unraveled in the inevitable ten-year oral history.
Why aren’t there more erotically charged Christmas movies?
Instrumental as furries may be to this film, Christmas still factors in significantly. The story plays out during Yuletide, and the holiday spirit fuels every convoluted turn of the plot. This is a notable — valuable, even — film in that it does not let a commitment to spreading seasonal cheer get in the way of incorrigible horniness. There’s gotta be something in the water around Pottersville, because everyone in town, except for sweetly clueless Maynard, is down to clown. Judy Greer portrays a reserved helper at Maynard’s shop, and spends most of her time gazing longingly at a man who has the face of Michael Shannon. Pretty much every word that comes out of Hendricks’s mouth relates to her eager furry experimentation. (Her first lines spoken to Thomas Lennon — who portrays a reality-TV personality with a fake Australian accent but only because, you know what, actually, don’t worry about it — are gauging whether he might be interested in a little role play.)
This amounts to one bizarre juxtaposition with the schmaltzy sentimentality of the Christmas season, what with its wholesome emphasis on peace and goodwill. The final scene of the film attempts to have its cake and fuck it too, as the townspeople all band together to save Maynard’s shop through the spirit of good Christian generosity, while Maynard breaks it off with his perfidious wife so she may go and explore her most exotic sexual desires unencumbered by marriage. It’s kind of like the last scene of It’s a Wonderful Life, but the porn version.
Who, exactly, is this film for?
Only five people have logged Pottersville on movie-diary site Letterboxd. I’m one of them, a colleague who took on the review assignment for Indiewire is another, and a third professes not to have actually seen the film. That means at least two people have watched this motion picture of their own volition (one of whom left the simple review of “holy crap”) and even that seems like a lot. Like Thomas Kinkade’s paintings, Pottersville is almost sickeningly saccharine, but like Thomas Kinkade’s personal life, it has been marred by a streak of queasy sexual deviancy. It’s too mawkish for full-grown adults, and too full of people trying to bang in fur suits for children. The advertising tries to play Henriksen’s film off as family-friendly, and maybe that’s true. This would probably receive a glowing reception on Bates family movie night.
Henriksen has succeeded in creating a film that is fundamentally incapable of being liked. In this respect, Pottersville is rare. Trash aficionados spend their whole lives rooting around in cinematic dumpsters for those orphaned Z-movies that hit the “so bad it’s good” sweet spot, but those pursuits often end up somewhere closer to the no-man’s-land of “so bad it’s boring.” Pottersville occupies an entirely separate plane. Appraising this like any other work of art proves ineffective; aesthetic and narrative criteria have no use here. These 80 short minutes provide a window into a banal sort of madness removed from the full-bore insanity of the great disasterpieces. It’s not a movie. It’s Exhibit A.