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Thursday
Jun022011

American: The Bill Hicks Story (2011)

To Lower the Standards

I've quoted stand-up comic Bill Hicks many times in my reviews. He was the ultimate cultural critic, a master of vicious observational barbs that I can only aspire to. Even though his attacks on the mediocrity of news media and mass entertainment went far beyond bad taste, he was always sincere. He wanted people to demand more of themselves and of the people running the show. Hicks's words and point of view have heavily influenced my own.

Which is why critiquing the new documentary about his life, American: The Bill Hicks Story, is especially difficult. As much as I loved seeing rare footage from his career and listening to different takes on stories I've heard over fourteen years of being a fan, I have to judge the movie's success or failure as a documentary. Sadly, this movie will likely leave die-hards and newcomers a little cold.

The main problem is co-directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas's insular take on Hicks's life. The film is narrated by the comedian's friends, family, and some of the comics that got their start with him in Texas. They describe a rebelious, goofy teenager who snuck out of the house with his best friend, Dwight Slade, to perform stand-up comedy on schoolnights. We hear about an early trip to L.A. and a defeated return home; about the dark decade of drinking; the liberation of sobriety; and the consciousness-and-set-list-expanding wonders of psychedelic mushrooms. Finally, we hear about Hicks's brief battle with pancreatic cancer, which claimed his life at age 32. It's all very interesting, but American feels less like a documentary than a slickly produced tribute one might play at a funeral.

Looking at the numerous photo collages that the directors and animator Graham Smith manipulate (with varying degrees of success) into South-Park-style recreations of key moments in Hicks's life, we see Sam Kinison and the rest of the notorious "Outlaw Comics"; yet Kinison is never mentioned in the film. Neither is Denis Leary, who, depending on which version of history you choose to believe, acknowleged stealing much of Hicks's act. The movie also glosses over the comic's struggles with Jay Leno and David Letterman, both of whom advised Hicks at different points to clean up his material and make it less challenging for mainstream audiences.

These juicy, dramatic events swept under a rug of nostalgia in favor of unfounded hero worship. The documentary is rife with testimonials about how influential and groundbreaking Hicks was, but only from his inner circle. Like the far better Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, American mistakenly fails to back up claims about its "legendary" subject with stories from performers who were influenced by himm. It's the documentary equivalent of a mother boasting about her son's latest piece of refrigerator artwork.

As a Hicks fan, I wish the filmmakers had spent more time and money getting interviews and digging deeper into the comics' impact than wasting a lot of energy on cutesy kids-growing-up-in-the-70s motion graphics. In fact, this movie is pretty much a Cliff's Notes version of Cynthia True's excellent 2002 book, American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story. It's hard to say how much of that book was authorized or factual, but it was damned compelling--moreso than most of what you'll see in this film.

One of the reasons an outside perspective is so crucial is because, based solely on the footage presented here, it's unclear whether or not newcomers to Hicks's brand of humor would find him funny or eye-opening.  Indeed, the best versions of his act can be found on his comedy albums; the segments shown in the movie are unpolished variations that, at times, come across as just an angry, animated guy screaming at his "stupid" audience.  Without a greater social context or testimony from fellow comics who would go on to mainstream success, one could easily walk away from American thinking, "No wonder I never heard of this clown"--rather than, "Why didn't I ever hear about his guy?"

It would have also been nice to hear from comics or media titans who didn't like Hicks.  There's a reason he toured America and Europe for almost twenty years and died in relative obscurity. Much of this has been attributed to his refusal to sell out, but what of the people who did? What about the people Hicks criticized in his act, the ones throwing the levers of power? Did they respect him, or think him a fool?

Sorry. I've spent the last three paragraphs on wishful thinking, and not really reviewing the movie.  But as someone who's waited a long time for a documentary on one of his heroes, only to be presented with a well-put-together puff piece, there's not much else I can do. It's sad that I've learned more about the comic's troubled life by reading True's book and listening to Marc Maron's podcast than from watching a feature-length film. Bill Hicks spent much of his adult life demanding transparency on political and religious issues and ridiculing superficiality. I'm kind of glad he's not around to see what would have surely been his latest target.

Tuesday
May312011

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) Home Video Review

Who Re-wrote the Book of Love?

After having built a stellar career directing grim, critically acclaimed movies like Apocalypse Now and The Godfather, I can see why Francis Ford Coppola might want to switch things up a bit.  And what could be further from hacking into a bull with a machete than a remake of Back to the Future aimed squarely at Yuppies?

Peggy Sue Got Married is a strange film.  It's not really a time travel movie, and its not really a comedy, but it wears the skin of both.  All of the actors who appear as forty-something suburban squares in 1986 also play themselves as teenagers in a prolonged flashback to 1960, resulting in what I can only describe as a two-hour, Archie-themed AA mixer.  Kathleen Turner stars as Peggy Sue Kelcher, a soon-to-be-divorced mother of two who passes out during her twenty-five-year high school reunion and wakes up during her senior year of high school.

Unsure of whether or not she's dreaming or actually trapped in the past, Peggy Sue makes the most of her experience: drinking, telling off her algebra teacher, and sleeping with the Beat-poet classmate she'd always fantasized about.  She also confounds her best friends with adult wisdom and helps school nerd Richard (Barry Miller) become a famous inventor by cluing him into things like the Walkman and running shoes.

But Peggy Sue's whimsical trip down memory lane is overshadowed by memories of her future with wannabe-rock-star boyfriend, Charlie (Nicolas Cage), who's destined to become a philandering alcoholic. This relationship is the heart of the film, and Turner and Cage do their best to walk the thematically dubious tightrope of Jerry Leightling and Arlene Sarner's screenplay.  Peggy Sue falls in and out of love with Charlie a number of times, and I wasn't sure if I was supposed to root for them to wind up together or hope that they'd avoid getting married.

As played by Cage, Charlie is a confused, ambitious boy whose desire to do the right thing is hindered by his libido and desperation to be perfect.  These are potentially the seeds of a monster, but the filmmakers never really make their case.  Indeed, Peggy Sue's initial quest to stop herself from marrying Charlie seems driven by her own desire to live a more carefree and fulfilling life (which wouldn't bode well for her two grown children); Turner's melodramatic performance calls to mind not a woman of introspection but instead the showy, failed Broadway singer Kristen Wiig plays on SNL.

The movie's outcome, though kind of sweet, makes all of the Will-They/Won't-They drama irrelevant.  I'm not spoiling much by saying that the moral of the story is to appreciate your life choices, no matter how hard that may be.  It's a lovely message, but one that sucks all the air out of the characters' conflicts and paints Peggy Sue as a hypochondriacal whiner who blames other people for her own lack of courage and attentiveness.  It's as if the original eighteen-year-old Peggy Sue was such an airhead that she based all of her life choices on how she might feel in a given week; only when the hardened version of herself swoops onto the scene does she take stock of anything of consequence.  Yes, teenagers can be dumb and shortsighted, but we never see the "Aha!" moment when the doormat becomes Kathleen Turner.

It's a real problem when your main character isn't nearly as interesting as the supporting cast.  In particular, Cage steals the film with a big-toothed, husky performance that's so weirdly specific that it defies categorization.  Charlie is both king of the school and a total geek, and I wanted nothing more than to follow him from Fabian clone to washed-up appliance salesman.

The movie's real discovery, though, is Barry Miller.  His Richard is so nuanced, tragic and delightful that he could have also spun off into his own picture.  As the billionaire tech genius returning to the school that once rejected him, his cool, above-it-all venom is deliciously mean.  But as a teenager, we see an inquisitive, gentle soul become warped by years of wedgies and name-calling.  Sadly, he's the most fully realized character in the movie.

I don't mean to suggest that Peggy Sue Got Married is a bad film.  It's just okay.  In some scenes, it's pretty great.  And you can tell exactly which scenes those are by composer John Barry's score.  Though I normally hate intrusive, Tell-Me-How-to-Feel music, Barry's swelling heart-string-tuggers underscore the best moments; the ones where the film ditches comedy altogether and touches on universal themes of growing up.  I got a bit misty-eyed at times, 'cause I'm a sucker.  But not even a handful of really touching moments can salvage a clunker--especially when they pepper a minefield of strange choices and downright bad filmmaking.

It's widely accepted that Francis Ford Coppola is a cinematic genius.  But I have to question that, based solely on his willingness to sabotage his own films by casting his daughter, Sophia, in them.  Her harpooning of The Godfather Part 3 is legendary, but it's not like he didn't have warning.  Playing Peggy Sue's pre-teen sister, the younger Coppola delivers her lines as if being revived with smelling salts. She's flat, awful, and wholly unnecessary.

Compared to the film's climax, however, hiring her was a stroke of brilliance.  Out of nowhere, Peggy Sue says "goodbye" to all of her friends and heads to her grandparents' house.  Her grandfather (Leon Ames) takes her to his lodge meeting, which turns out to be a gathering place for a brotherhood of ancient wizards or something.  They attempt to send her back in time, but--

Forget it.  Coppola's screenwriters clearly didn't know how to handle the home stretch, so they threw this geriatric mumbo-jumbo at the wall.  Fortunately, the sub-par subplot only lasts for about five minutes before being discarded.  But, still, in a film of soft zigzags, the mystic lodge bit is a hard left turn into a brick wall, and I have to wonder if it was a last-minute addition to the faltering story.

This harmless, fluffy movie might be better known for bridging the Back to the Future phenomenon and the late-80s boom of body-switching movies like Vice Versa and Big (a tenuous but legit connection).  It also stars up-and-comers like Jim Carrey, Joan Allen and Catherine Hicks.  But these gems of retrospect do nothing to improve the film as a piece of entertainment.  If Coppola's filmography were a yearbook, Peggy Sue Got Married would not be pictured.

Monday
May302011

Defendor (2009) Home Video Review

A Special Place in Hell

You can add another genre to the list of films that never need to be made again: The Duct-Tape-Vigilante Picture.  As exemplified in recent movies like Kick-Ass and Super, and stretching all the way back to 1999's Mystery Men, this subset of the superhero movie sees average men and women drawing inspiration from comic-book characters and taking on crime themselves.  They stitch together cheap costumes and modify household items to make weapons; they're invariably awkward losers overlooked by society who see epic evil in every street pusher and corrupt developer in the neighborhood.

At their best, these films are brutal yet inspiring metaphors for modern American living. They call upon the audience to fight little injustices in their everyday lives and, maybe, fry some bigger fish, too.  At their worst, they bypass truth and justice altogether, relishing in nihilism.

Let me be clear: I have no problem with brutally violent superhero movies, as long as there's a solid, positive message buried somewhere inside.  I'm also okay with movies that are graphic, bleak and pointless, as long as the filmmakers back up their horror shows with a solid script (great acting and visuals are a plus).

So when I say that I consider writer/director Peter Stebbings's Defendor to be offensively awful, know that I'm not holding it to some weird, prudish entertainment standard.  What sets this movie apart from the rest is that the main character is retarded; I don't mean "stupid" or "silly".  I mean he's a grown man with a mental handicap who beats and maims criminals.  It's a fascinating premise for a film; probably not for an action/comedy, though; and definitely not this one.

Can we agree that watching idiots fumbling around and hurting themselves is funny, but watching disabled people do the same thing is not?

Please?

Good.  Now, let's talk about this sophomoric piece of shit.

No, that's not fair.

Defendor is actually a very well made indie movie, and Stebbings has somehow assembled a dynamite cast. Woody Harrelson stars as the titular vigilante, a black-clad hero who bludgeons sleazy cops with a truncheon and disarms gun-toting flunkies with jars of angry wasps.  By day, he's a construction worker named Arthur Poppington whose job it is to hold the "Slow" sign (ha fucking ha). Arthur's boss and best friend, Paul (the always excellent Michael Kelly), warns him to stay away from the young prostitute that's taken up residence in the rundown building he calls both home and headquarters.

Angel (Kat Dennings) rescued Defendor from the henchmen of a vicious junky cop named Dooney (Elias Koeas) and decided to stick around.  Angel loves smoking crack and screwing people over, which compels her to dupe Defendor into paying her $40 a day to help him track down the Serbian drug lord (Alan C. Peterson) he believes killed his mother. Sandra Oh also pops up as the court-appointed shrink who analyzes Arthur after he's arrested for stuffing Angel's pedophile dad into a shopping mall garbage can.

The film's insurmountable problem is its struggle to find both a tone and a point.  We're asked to accept Defendor as a wacky, low-rent farce at the outset; the cornball superhero score and bumbling-bad-guy shenanigans are strictly Disney Channel nonsense.  But these elements punctuate scenes of crack whores blowing cops and mentally disabled people getting lit up by machine guns.  There are long (long, long, looooong) stretches of the movie that are meant to build up Angel's burgeoning friendship with the delusional, sad Arthur.  But Stebbings's writing is neither sharp nor consistent enough to hold the audience's interest.

Angel vacillates between being a hooker with a heart of gold and a straight-up, nasty See You Next Tuesday; I just wanted someone to step in and prevent her from emotionally terrorizing Arthur.

On a related note, Dennings plays the most cogent crackhead I've ever seen in the movies.  Instead of a strung-out space-case, she plays Angel as a way-buzzed Edward Furlong--complete with dead-inside delivery and lead-lidded eyes.  She also kicks her habit in record time (apparently using the Charlie Sheen Method) and becomes a successful newspaper columnist by film's end--a character turn that Defendor's creators might think is something downright "comic book-y", but which is just plain stupid in any reality.

The only scenes that didn't make me want to shower afterwards involve Arthur and Paul--but even those are tainted by doubts.  Paul is a loving family man who, we're asked to believe, has been Arthur's dear friend for the five years they've worked together.  The characters' love for each other is evident, touching, and wholly out of place in this film.  I would've rather seen a legitimate drama about Arthur's relationship with Paul's family than a tasteless comedy that uses these scenes as heft.  Still, if they're such good friends, how is it that Paul didn't know that Arthur had moved out of his group home?  And did he never think to ask his friend about what he does in his spare time?

Had Defendor been about a lovable loser or an off-balance schlub, it would have been just another retread of better, similarly themed movies.  But by establishing almost right away that Arthur has been challenged from birth, Stebbings splatters each scene with a green ooze of distaste. Casting Harrelson was a sharp move, in that the actor does very well affecting the faux Rain-Man-nerisms of the Movie Simpleton.  But when the film turns dramatic and we're meant to see just how slow Arthur is, it's clear that the actor has gone (to use Tropic Thunder's awful but astute term) "full retard".  There's just no way to enjoy that as entertainment unless you compartmentalize the hell out of your film brain.

If you disagree, I'd like to propose the following mental exercise:  Think back to the film's most "comedic" moments and picture an actor with Down Syndrome in place of Woody Harrelson.  Is Defendor still hilarious, or do you feel a little sick?

I'm not suggesting that actors or characters with disabilities be treated with kid gloves, but I'd appreciate a baseline of dignity.  By never specifying Arthur's condition or answering basic questions the audience might have when presented with such a character, Stebbings is left with nothing but a flimsy gimmick of a hero--played by an actor doing the handicapped equivalent of blackface.  It would take a hell of a writer/director/actor combination to make that acceptable and exciting, and no one on this picture is up to the task.  Defendor is an ugly movie to begin with, but its handling of the retardation angle makes it indefensible.

Sunday
May292011

The Hangover Part 2 (2011)

That's What You Get for Waking Up in Bangkok

Well, this is weird: The Hangover Part 2 is almost a beat-for-beat remake of the first film. Accidentally roofied during a bachelor party, a group of three middle-aged misfits wake up the next morning with no recollection of the destruction they've caused an entire city. Substitute Las Vegas for Bangkok, and there's your sequel. I hate cheap cash-ins that feebly attempt to recreate the magic of a surprise blockbuster with the simple rinse/repeat strategy.

Fortunately, so does director Todd Phillips, whose follow-up is not only a better comedy than 2009's The Hangover, but also a solid, stand-alone film. If that sounds contradictory to my opening paragraph, welcome to my confusion. It's true that a version of all of the first film's events play out for a second time, but Phillips and co-writers Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong keep things interesting and exciting by A) delivering solid laughs from about the ten-minute mark through the middle of the end credits, and B) tweaking the first movie's conventions just enough to surprise an audience expecting a Xerox of that screenplay.

This time out, nerdy dentist Stu (Ed Helms) invites his best friends Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Doug (Justin Bartha) to his destination wedding in Thailand.  He dumped the stripper he fell for in the Vegas movie, preferring instead to settle down with a nice, normal girl named Lauren (Jamie Chung). The guys invite her genius teenage brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), to hang out with them before the ceremony. Stu is also guilted into including Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Doug's socially awkward stepbrother.  It was Alan who drugged the gang during their last adventure, and Stu goes out of his way to not accept open bottles of liquor from anyone in Thailand.

Despite his vigilance, he wakes up in a filthy Bangkok hotel with Phil, Alan, and an unconscious Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), the drug lord who'd nearly killed them two years ago. Chow is the only person with a recollection of the previous evening's escapades, which included, apparently, adopting a jeans-vest-wearing monkey and losing Teddy in the city (not all of him, though: his severed finger winds up in a glass of water next to Phil). But before Chow can spill the beans, he drops dead of a cocaine overdose.

As you can imagine, the rest of the film sees the guys searching for Teddy and making their way back to the resort in time for Stu's wedding. Doug, who'd left the party early, keeps in phone contact with his friends and does his best to stall Lauren and her increasingly impatient family. To delve further into the plot would spoil a really great time at the movies.  If you've seen the trailers for The Hangover Part 2, then you've caught glimpses of the over-the-top wackiness; luckily, the best stuff was saved for the feature film.

What makes this movie so outstanding is Phillips' willingness to make the exact kind of movie he wanted to make. I can only assume this is true, of course, but the evidence is all over the picture. It's as if he knew that his film would dominate the box office for at least the opening weekend, and so felt no need to play it safe with expectations of story or tone. He includes brilliant comedic moments that are somehow both absurd and sweet (such as a brief look at the world through Alan's eyes and the best use of Billy Joel's "The Downeaster 'Alexa'" anyone could have ever imagined), as well as scenes that take a far darker turn than any of the original's "heavy" portions (one of the characters gets shot--and not in a cute way--and the characters' sweaty, defeated looks throughout most of the picture convey genuine fear and shame).  Sure, Phillips wraps everything up with a happy ending, but he takes some nasty, weird roads to get there.

The Hangover Part 2 reminds me a lot of recent horror sequels Halloween 2 and Hostel Part 2. In each case, the writers and directors took pleasing the audience out of the equation and made challenging, grotesque pieces of entertainment that almost dared viewers to like them. One of the ways Phillips accomplishes this is by changing the placement of his story beats.  For instance, the first movie had a case of mistaken identity at the climax. There's a similar issue here, but it happens much earlier on, and that's an important distinction.  By subtly disorienting the audience, on an almost subconscious level, the creators render viewers incapable of staying on their toes, even when they come across scenes they think are simply retreads. I'll admit, I saw some of the gags coming, but the dialogue made up for a lot of the predictability--as did a handful of scenes (one involving Paul Giamatti on a rooftop) that totally threw me for a loop.

Phillips' coup de grace is a series of little touches that reward ecclectic and deranged cinephiles. You've probably heard about the controversial hiring-then-firing of Mel Gibson as this movie's surprise celebrity cameo (Mike Tyson filled this role in part one).  Instead of getting another wacky household name to occupy the slot, Phillips brings in Nick Cassavetes--who maybe ten people will know as the director of The Notebook.

Of course, many will go to this film just to see Galifianakis do strange shit. They won't be disappointed, but they may also be surprised to see Ed Helms step into the Leading Man role--edging out the classically dashing and just-shy-of-vainly-bland Cooper.  Helms doesn't just return to the role of Stu, he embodies the growth that his character has experienced in the two years between movies. That may sound like actorly bullshit, but as with every character in the movie, we're watching a person who's been affected by their own actions; not a video game character who's been reset. It'd be easy to say that Galifianakis steals the show, but his very welcome oddball presence does nothing to detract from a great supporting cast.

Some of you will refuse to swallow this, and I completely understand.  Everything about The Hangover Part 2 looks like a rehash from the outside. But there's a lot of heart, brains and wit stuffed into this movie that most of Judd Apatow's work and the abysmally insulting Bridesmaids wish they could have tapped into. Todd Phillips makes movies about man-children; but unlike his contemporaries he doesn't neglect the "man" part of the psyche.  Underneath the grimy layers of severed body parts, smoking monkeys and tranny strippers are positive messages about friendship, maturity, and commitment that are just as likely to cause introspection as frequent belly-laughs.

Friday
May272011

Bronson (2009)

A Cliff's Notes Clockwork

There's a great movie about a British kid who's so unhinged, so violent and deranged that the authorities have no choice but to lock him up, alter his brain chemistry, and hope for the best.  Once re-introduced to polite society, he finds himself unable to cope with normalcy and winds up back in the system.  That movie is Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

Unfortunately, I'm here to talk about Bronson, a film so right in terms of casting, production design and cinematography that it's a shame director Nicolas Winding Refn wasted his talents on a half-baked, unofficial remake.  Here's the deal: I have no problem with someone remaking A Clockwork Orange. Though it's an amazing film--a bona fide classic--I'd never slight someone for giving it another go.  I'd be the first in line to mock the hell out of their failed efforts, sure, but I would also scream my praises from the virtual mountaintops if that were called for.

Refn's movie isn't a futuristic fable about totalitarianism and bent youth culture.  It's another "Based on a True Story" picture that details the life of legendary criminal Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy).  In the mid-70s, he went to prison for assault and discovered that he could make a name for himself by beating up the most people and causing more damage than any inmate in history.  We're meant to believe that Peterson had always wanted to be famous, despite never having cultivated actual talents like acting or singing. Refn and co-writer Brock Norman Brock play up this angle a bit too much in an effort to shoehorn in the popular "Famous for Being Famous" meme.

The film has three main problems.  The first is its timeline.  We're never quite sure what year the story takes place in.  I found out that Peterson went up the river in in 1974 (at age 19) through a Wikipedia search.  He spent several years in the system, transferring from prison to prison because no one could handle his tendency to pummel inmates and staff to a bloody pulp.  At one point, he's sent to a mental institution, where he's pumped full of drugs.  He somehow gets himself off the drugs and strangles a pedophile, which leads to a 26-year sentence in a new, high-security prison.  According to his narration, Peterson did the whole stint and was eventually released.

Let's consider that Peterson would have been in his 50s at the time of parole.  Would he still look like a 31-year-old Tom Hardy?  It's possible, but I seriously doubt it.  The filmmakers make no pains to show the passage of time in his actors or even to their environment.  They're so wrapped up in their wacky Kubrick aesthetic that Bronson feels more like a fantasy than something that was ripped from the headlines.

Maybe that's what they were going for; but it makes our second problem, the "Based on a True Story" angle, much stickier.  Peterson is a cartoon character, a raging brawl-junky who fancies himself a charismatic entertainer.  He will literally do anything to get attention--from holding his art therapy teacher and the prison librarian hostage to leading an inmate revolt and scaling the roof of the building they've set on fire.  If you watch Bronson the same way you watch porn, then the plot mechanics don't matter at all: the whole experience is just a series of exciting bits bridged by filler.  But for those of us expecting "True Story" movies to resemble real events--or at least attempt to explain the bizarre things we're asked to accept--Bronson is a frustrating exercise in tedium.

Why, for example, were a librarian and an art teacher allowed to be alone in a room with a guy who'd built a decades-long reputation as a cross between Hannibal Lecter and The Incredible Hulk?  How was Peterson able to stage the fire and lead a gang of criminals out of the prison?  And, lastly, how am I supposed to believe that the government's solution to dealing with their most unstable convict was to simply set him free?

That's right, late in the film, Peterson is released because the people in charge had run out of ideas.  He made it 69 days on the outside before knocking over a jewelry store and getting hauled back in.  Which begs yet another question: Why was he let go if the plan was to simply arrest him after his (inevitable) next offense?

These logical lapses are stunning; frankly, I expected better from an indie movie that's garnered so much praise over the years.  It's sad to say, but the best way to fully enjoy Bronson is to turn off your brain.

Ah, but what about the alluring, dangerous charms of Tom Hardy?  I give the actor a lot of credit.  He's attractive, energetic, and built like a brick shithouse.  But my problem (number three for those keeping count) with his take on Peterson goes back to the screenplay.  Hardy isn't called upon to do anything interesting, outside of the nicely choreographed but way-too-numerous fight scenes.  His character's M.O. is to narrate his story blankly to the camera, and, at very predictable junctures, punctuate disturbing passages with a wide, Joker-esque grin.  Peterson is mostly cunning, with very little intelligence; and he doesn't have a character arc.  He begins the film as an unsympathetic psychopath and ends it the same way.

What makes A Clockwork Orange so superior is that its protagonist, Alex DeLarge, was a witty, psychopathic genius who came to several crossroads on his journey to enlightenment.  By the end of that film, the audience is left with several questions about who he's become and what key moments changed him from the wily punk who began the story (the novel's original ending left even more room for debate).  As the lead, Malcom McDowell made the viewer understand him and kind of like him, even though many people found his actions to be unconscionable.

Despite the cute interstitial segments that take place in Peterson's mind (in which he performs in front of a theatre audience, dressed as a suited clown), we never get to know him.  He's as interesting as a reality TV star but, as his actions bear out, is exponentially more desperate and unlikeable.

Bronson might have had a chance if the creators had given Peterson someone to connect with, or even a formidable foil, but he simply bounces off the other characters like the world's most obnoxious pinball. Only Jonny Phillips as the Prison Governor at Peterson's final residence offers any true resistance, calling the man ridiculous at their first meeting ("pathetic" at their second).  Still, this is Peterson's show; by definition, no one is allowed to steal the spotlight from his lovable, terrorist escapades.

I'll never be able to prove this hunch, but I'd wager Refn filtered his "true story" through the Clockwork Orange motif as a way of disguising the fact that he really didn't have a story to begin with.  A documentary on Peterson would have, I'm sure, been fascinating, but you can't make ninety-minutes with a dead-eyed scrapper compelling, outside of a Mixed Martial Arts tournament.  Refn tries his best, aping Kubrick's story beats and use of classical music.  But the most interesting thing about Peterson is that he adopted the moniker "Charles Bronson" while serving time. Even that was someone else's idea, though; so, yeah, there's nothing here to see, folks.