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Problem Solving the Republic (2012)

The Other "L" Word

What do I stand for? What do I stand for? Most nights I don't know anymore.


I'm sure Problem Solving the Republic will find its audience, but the movie didn't work for me.

Let me walk that back a bit. It's very well made, imaginative, and highly entertaining--I expect nothing less from Elliot Diviney, who also directed one of my favorites from last year, Potpourri. The problem is that the story he and his brother Adam have decided to tell carries a muddled, disturbing message that promotes "common sense"over next-level thought.

Set in a present-day America where big ideas are represented by superheroes, the film begins with the abduction of The Taxpayer (Jimmy Keebs) by an evil organization called The Alliance. The federal government--portrayed here by four clueless, moustachioed bureaucrats and led by Cornelius Pebblefoot (Craig Diviney)--are helpless to stop the imminent execution of The Taxpayer on election day. They must rely on a janitor named Richard Randolph (Tony D. Czech) to enlist the help of a retired super-duo comprised of Common Sense (Roger Wayne) and Personal Responsibility (Anjel White). Along the way, they spring Birth Control (Anika Reitman) from prison to help bring down Alliance head and presidential candidate Dick Panzy (Douglas Sidney).

Panzy's staff is comprised of Bad Dad (Jarrod Crooks), Donnie the Freeloader (Matt Tobin), The Immigrant (Savvy Anavkar), Leah Lush (KariAnn Craig), and The Bible Thumper (David Otto Simanek). They're villains, we're led to believe, because they represent society's collective, wimpy tolerance for diversity and the modern hand-out culture. The Immigrant is an Eastern Indian raised in Mexico who, of course, came to the states illegally and refuses to work; The Freeloader collects welfare while prancing around his flat-screen TV--also while refusing to work; Leah Lush is our oversexed media; and on and on.

These easy, apocryphal targets expose the filmmakers' myopic view of the country in which they live. The themes presented in Problem Solving the Republic sound like they were ripped from the comments sections of Conservative websites: All people on welfare are lazy, money-grubbing slobs. Every illegal immigrant who sets foot on our precious land is greedy, sinister, and entitled. Affirmative Action exists exclusively to enable unqualified, uneducated losers to steal great jobs from eager-to-work, able-bodied, straight whites.

Having been thrilled by Potpourri's open-mindedness, I find the Divineys' lack of insight into these matters very troubling. Surely they realize that it's foolish and irresponsible to lump millions of people into cartoonish categories. As artists, they're free to do whatever they want, but if they're looking to reach an audience beyond bitter Libertarians and young Randians, they should really consider giving these archetypes actual arches.

For example, a concern about widespread welfare abuse is a case for activism and reform, not abolishing a system that has helped countless, genuinely distressed people for decades. Also, consider the misguided rage fuelling this caricature: in the current political climate, it's common for Republicans to decry the Democratic administration's "outrageously high" unemployment numbers--while also complaining that too many people are sucking up unemployment and welfare benefits.

According to the film's timeline, Common Sense and Personal Responsibility were forced into retirement twenty years ago. Yes, at the end of the Reagan and Bush One eras, all of America's core principles were thrown out the window in favor of a debaucherous carnival ride. The Divineys would have us believe that theirs is a message of defeating bipartisan corruption (organized religion receives quite the flogging by science in one of the film's best moments), but there's a distinct feeling throughout the movie that political correctness and NAFTA ruined everything, and that only by getting back to the sun-shiny days of rugged individualism can we right our national course.

The film ends with Panzy's defeat (not a spoiler by any stretch) and America answering Randolph's cry to return to our alleged bootstrap-lifting roots. That's cute for the movies, but in a world where the apocalypse is still at least half a decade away, Libertarianism is simply a big, dumb dream. How does one enact a policy of rugged individualism for over 300 million people?* Through what George Carlin once called "passive eugenics", that's how. Good luck pitching that to the population's lower third.

Though the cast brims with diversity, Problem Solving the Republic feels like an angry white-guy rant about harkening back to a rarified, Pat Buchanan-esque utopia where there were more trees than people--a time when hard-working Midwestern folks could live their whole lives without being forced to do the "hard work" of understanding people who were different from them. I hope that, in preparation for their roles, the actors playing the lazy, opportunistic, ethnic stereotypes dug up their family trees to ensure all of their ancestors waited in the proper lines and filled out all the requisite paperwork before starting work in this country. Otherwise, their support of the Divineys' immigration stance might be seen as shameful.

Speaking of which, one of the closing scenes involves Pebblefoot and Birth Control heading off to Africa to distribute condoms. Only two slight problems with this: First, not all of the births on that continent are the result of sex that is, shall we say, "consensual" (neither are the STDs). Second, if, in the aftermath of The Alliance's defeat, America has "returned" to being an anti-big-government stronghold, what business do we have passing out anything to anyone beyond our shores? Seems like an interventionist waste of taxpayer money to me.

The messages are all over the map in this movie, and not in the "Cafeteria Catholic" way of using clusters of ideology that work for you to develop a personal philosophy. Everything is just garbled, whiny, and unhelpful.

So, how can I recommend Problem Solving the Republic? Easily. From a filmmaking standpoint, the Divineys and Restraining Hollywood continue to astound me with their high-caliber indie productions and ambition. I agreed with very little here, storywise, but at no point did I consider turning the movie off. From the handful of really catchy musical interludes; to the giddy butterflies that accompanied discovering the talents of Reitman, Wayne, and others; to the really funny gags that belong in a straightforward, soapbox-free comedy, the film is just about as entertaining and well-put-together as any studio picture I've seen this year. The movie's quality is on-message, even if its actual message is not.

*I'd be curious to see how the Personal Responsibility Coalition would play on the East Coast right now, following Hurricane Sandy's two-day game of Wreck-It Ralph.

**There's a marvelous song about taking personal responsibility in public restrooms that will improve your etiquette by virtue of playing in the back of your mind every time you take a leak.

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