- Written and directed by Anna Biller
Anna Biller wants to out-auteur Charlie Chaplin. Not only did she write, direct, and co-produce this parody of late sixties/early seventies exploitation flicks, but she stars in the title role. She also wrote some of the songs, animated a drug-induced dream sequence, and designed the sets and costumes. She even directed her own nude scenes, something I’m pretty sure Chaplin never did.
But judging from Viva, Biller can’t act, write, or direct to save her life. She does have a unique and interesting flair for design. Nearly every shot in Viva is color-coordinated in a way that’s both pleasing to the eye and outrageously obvious. When there’s nothing else worth watching, which is most of the time, you can at least enjoy the way everyone’s clothes matches the walls and furniture (when they’re wearing clothes).
A big part of the problem: American exploitation movies from the dawn of the sexual revolution didn’t take themselves seriously, making them impervious to parody (although French exploitation films like Emmanuelle beg for it). All you can really do to parody the likes of Russ Meyer is to exaggerate what’s already exaggerated. That gets tired very fast.
Viva might have worked as a five-minute sketch, but as a two-hour feature (yes, two hours) it’s numbing. Despite all the sex talk and nudity, there’s not a single erotic moment (to be fair, I don’t think Biller intended one), and very few genuine laughs.
Biller has no idea how to turn an outrageous story towards a funny direction. For instance, the movie’s climax (so to speak) takes place at an orgy. Her date, having failed so far to seduce her, slips her a drug to loosen her inhibitions. Are there comic possibilities here? Yes. (Leaving aside serious date rape issues.) For instance, there’s the Midsummer Night’s Dream approach: She could lose her inhibitions with someone except–or everyone except–the jerk who drugged her. But it seems that neither this nor any other funny turn of events occurred to Biller.
Instead, she tries to get laughs from stilted dialog spoken with ill-placed pauses and punctuated by annoying laughs–especially the laugh of Biller’s co-producer, Jared Sanford, in the part of her best friend’s husband. The closest thing to a performance comes from Bridget Brno as that friend. She starts out stilted like everyone else, but spends most of the movie resembling a normal human being. You can really see the talent difference when Biller and Brno sing and dance together at the movie’s end (Viva inexplicitly becomes a musical about half way through). Brno’s performance won’t win her a lead role on Broadway, but it’s competent. Biller looks like she’s trying to remember the next step.
Viva opens Friday for a five-day run at the Red Vic.