The cover art and title might give the impression Meet Monica Velour is an ingratiating comedy built around Kim Cattrall’s sexually provocative persona (with shoes getting as much attention as the actress), but Keith Bearden’s feature film debut is a surprisingly sweet, odd tale of a teen named Tobe (Dustin Ingram) with a fractured family who leaps at the chance to see his idol – legendary porn star Monica Velour (Cattrall) – perform a striptease in person.
Instead of being horrified by her aged presence – older, tired, emotionally wounded, living in a trailer park, and engaged in a bitter custody battle with her crappy ex-husband (Jay Malack) – he’s even more enthralled that an uber-dork like himself is able to befriend and even help an icon through some serious troubles.
One could regard Velour as the porn equivalent of The Wrestler (2008) – she’s a similarly down & out talent doing the grunge circuit, trying not to lose her one child – and Cattrall does the usual master thespian thing of looking like hell to ensure her performance is filled with enough gravitas, but there’s a wryness to her character which plays off Tobe’s own intense dorkiness, and their unlikely friendship works because Tobe, in basic terms, just means well.
Bearden’s script does wade into melodrama, but those moments are unavoidable when his teen character has to deal with Velour’s rejection and indifference, and wrangle through his own clumsy love life.
There’s also his alcoholic grandfather Pop Pop (Brian Dennehy) who regards him like an idiotic thing he’s stuck with, since Tobe’s parents are long gone; and Claude (Keith David), an artist who buys the family business truck – a wiener mobile (dubbed the “Weenie Whiz”) – and imparts sage advice when Tobe’s youth makes it impossible for him to understand how age and bad turns can transform a person into a train wreck. As Velour tries to explain to her young admirer, ‘sometimes you don’t recognize the face in the mirror, and you wonder what happened.’
There’s a lot of honesty in Bearden’s script, and Velour’s life drama isn’t the film’s central focus; Tobe’s growth from child to young adult is the key transformation, and Velour is merely the catalyst who forces Tobe to realize it’s time to move forward, and be a little aware that life can and will yield some emotional disasters.
For a debut effort, Velour is a very assured film with a generally tight script, and a strong cast of veterans and newcomers perfectly suited for their roles. Ingram’s giant cloud of hair and askew smile is kind of hypnotic, and Cattrall pulls off a serious role without going completely Method, transcending clichés and avoiding dangerous tangents into pools of bathos. Dennehy looks like hell, eating pickled eggs dipped in Pepto Bismol, and Elizabeth Wright Shapiro almost steals the strip club scene as hungry hustler named Snickers, searching for some healthy male ‘nuts.’
As a low budget production, Velour looks and sounds gorgeous, and Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray flatters Masanobu Takayanagi’s beautifully composed images. Bearden and Takayanagi went for a very specific colour scheme that’s part seventies, with little bits of late fifties pastel blue and turquoise green scattered across the sky, in furniture, and interior décor. The locations are similarly evocative of small parts of Michigan and Illinois where aspects of different time periods have remained untouched, aging into a collage bereft of contemporary styles and technology.
Claude’s barnyard studio is also filled with old iconography – a retro leather couch, a Bob’s Big Boy statue, a chicken wire seat (!) – and Tobe’s hotel is literally frozen in 1967 (and apparently was exactly the way the filmmakers found it).
The Blu-ray’s extras include four deleted scenes removed to keep the film’s pacing brisk, and bring in the titular character early into the drama. None really add much, and the two dreams Tobe has of himself and the young Monica Velour are amusing, but unnecessary, and a little jarring because actress Jamie Tisdale (With the Angels) doesn’t sport the same accent Cattrall uses in all her scenes.
The first dream, a short-short spoof of the Raquel Welch One Million Years B.C. (1966) is hysterical, whereas the second may have been dropped due to Tisdale standing on camera in her stark birthday suit – a no-no that might have pushed the film into the NC-17 realm disliked by producers and advertisers.
Bearden and Cattrall’s disc commentary is very lively, with plenty of production minutia, background info on the characters, and Bearden’s reflections on his first feature after making the award-winning shorts Train Town (2007), and The Raftman’s Razor (2005).
(Raftman's Razor certainly shares Velour’s central theme of youth coming of age, although in the short film, Bearden uses two boys’ fascination with an existentialist comic book hero – the Raftman is a guy drifting in the ocean in a rudderless, oarless dinghy, spouting philosophical bon mots when he’s not shaving – to show how their oddness in fringe graphic literature helps them comprehend greater questions of life, and perhaps preparing them for more personal, individual life quests in the coming years.)
Bearden, not unlike P. T. Anderson (maker of the epic porn drama Boogie Nights), is clearly a fan of the adult genre, and has empathy for the weird career performers chose, and a fascination for their lives when age, drugs, and hard times hit after their peak years ended. The film’s title was originally Miss January, 1978, but that more appropriate title was scuttled when Playboy objected to their copyrighted header being used in association with a film about… porn. (Apparently Playboy and / or Hugh Hefner [M] feel their roots are in erotica?)
Velour is set in the present era, but Bearden’s story is really working in a mythic world where there are no such things as fan conventions or vanity sites. The conceit is that Monica Velour is living in a pre-internet era, because in reality, while down on her luck, her only option wouldn’t have been to work in a peeler bar: she could’ve attended porn conventions, established a commercial website, and exploited her image as a once-reigning porn queen.
The assumption viewers have to make is Velour is so out of touch with her past life – partially due to her ex-husband’s insistence she destroy every piece of memorabilia - that her thinking is on practical venues to earn immediate cash, and because she’s been forced to purge her past from her consciousness, marketing herself to a tech-savvy fan base is an impossible leap to make.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan