For casual indie film enthusiasts, writer-director Azazel Jacobs likely landed on their radars with his 2011 feature Terri, his first picture with a marquee actor (John C. Reilly) and a million-dollar budget. Many more viewers saw his 2017 comedy The Lovers, with Debra Winger and Tracy Letts, his most expensive and best-marketed picture to date.
At first blush at his scant filmography, Jacobs seems more journeyman than auteur, a filmmaker just as confident working with others’ scripts as his own, a self-effacing storyteller drawn to new environments, new psychologies to probe, new crises to solve. But the more you watch, the more you discover. Kino’s recent Blu-ray releases of Jacobs’ scrappy and little-seen second and third films offer a spirited and revelatory introduction to his oeuvre, one that feels increasingly linked by the wayward misfits stumbling through it.
With its lean dialogue and tight menagerie of faces fit for silent cinema, The GoodTimesKid, from 2003 ($19.99), plays like a vintage screwball comedy where actions speak louder than words. It’s also a love triangle of sorts, in which a pair of near-doppelgangers — shaggy, rootless brooders both named Rodolfo Cano (Jacobs and Gerardo Naranjo) — show up at the same Army recruitment center for the same initiation. Only one of the Rodolfos responds when his name is called; the other follows his namesake home through the streets of Echo Park in one of the slowest and most deadpan chase scenes put to film.
Rodolfo II, the one who spoke up at the center, is a disaffected punk rocker spectacularly unfit for the armed forces. Back home, his relationship with Diaz (Sara Diaz) is on the skids, despite her better efforts to save it by throwing him a birthday party. Rodolfo I, however, seems drawn to Diaz’s mercurial combination of anarchy and whimsy. So while Rodolfo II finds himself on the losing end of a barroom brawl, Rodolfo I enjoys the company of his girlfriend, inviting her to his houseboat for a chaste adventure where, like kids at a sleepover, they giggle in flash-lit darkness while Rodolfo I’s own estranged lover bangs at the vessel’s board-up door, screaming contradictions: “I need you! … I hate you!”
The influence of early Jim Jarmusch and Richard Linklater, and especially of the hardscrabble tragicomedies of Aki Kaurismäki, colors this oddball cult film; Naranjo even projects the hangdog visage of Kaurismäki regular Matti Pellonpää. Beyond the amusing quirks, though, lies a central theme of Jacobs’ cinema: the crippling lack of communication among people who have exhausted their options — and who seem resigned, in this case, to a harsh oblivion.
Jacobs refines some of these ideas in his next feature Momma’s Man ($11.01), completed just three years later but which is light-years ahead in terms of its naturalism, its poignancy, its lacerating insights. It also begs to be taken as Jacobs’ most personal film, with the director’s own bohemian parents — artist Flo Jacobs and experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs, cast as transparent versions of themselves.
Moreover, Jacobs set the movie in his childhood home, an enormous warehouse loft in New York City with no dividers between “rooms” and so cluttered with bric-a-brac that its owners teeter on the precipice of functional hoarderdom. It’s here that Mikey (Matt Boren) has escaped for a couple days from the life in Los Angeles he shares with his wife, Laura (Dana Varon), and newborn daughter. When his flight home is supposedly canceled, he extends his trip another night, then another, then another, inventing contradictory excuses to Laura, to his parents, to an old friend.
It doesn’t take long to realize Mikey is a habitual liar, saying whatever it takes to prolong this midlife interregnum, which grows squirrelier by the hour. While he initially retreats to adolescent pastimes — comic books, arcade games, playing the clumsy breakup song he wrote as a teenager, which he rediscovers among his parents’ detritus — he eventually graduates to booze and self-destructive agoraphobia, preferring the security of an embalmed past to an uncertain future.
Jacobs’ claustrophobic cocoon of a film makes for a profoundly accurate dissection of human behavior, exploring universal fears and anxieties with compassion and, perhaps, a cure: the irreplaceable salve of maternal love. Jettisoning the eccentricities of The GoodTimesKid, Momma’s Man is a historic leap forward for Jacobs, remaining the benchmark of his still-young filmography. See it now.