All jobs and professions require certain skills; most of these can be learned, allowing most people to learn as they go along, and become better the longer they work. But some jobs require a certain kind of talent, or perhaps a physical atttribute, that, without it, the job is impossible. Think of all the people who audition for shows like American Idol who are terrible singers: they have a dream of singing, and yet seem to have done nothing to develop the necessary skills, or at least had anyone tell them that they just don’t have what it takes (except Simon Cowell). What happens to that dream that you realize is never going to come true? What road will you take if you can’t do the one thing you’ve always wanted?
Many of these questions came to mind as I watched Mope, Lucas Heyne’s feature debut. Based on the true story of a low-level porn actor who murdered his best friend, it tells the story not only of onbe of the darker corners of a strange industry, but about self-awareness, acceptance, the refusal to give up or give in, and how more often than not we are the demons that live inside us.
Steve (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and Tom (Kelly Sry) are ‘mopes’, low-level porn ‘actors’ who do menial tasks for almost no money in the hopes of getting in front of the camera one day; and maybe they do, for an occassional gang-bang scene, but they have neither the necessary talent nor, ahem, ‘attribute’ to rise any higher. Tom at least has computer skills, so Eric (Brian Huskey), a small-time director of what is seen as ‘weirdo’ porn, hires him to update his company Ultima’s website. Steve manages to tag along, and the two men share a tiny room, clean up after the shoots, and get both literally and metaphorically kicked in the balls as they try to work their way up, even from this incredibly low bottom.
Because this isn’t Boogie Nights, which it its way gave us a rather ‘clean’ image: this is the bottom-of-the-barrel porn, people by actors and crews making a pittance. For Steve and Tom, though, this is the dream of instant fame, wealth, hot chicks to bang every day, though it doesn’t take long for at least Tom to figure out that, at Ultima, these dreams will not come true. But hey, at least he works for a porn company, and occasionally gets to fuck one of the women stars. For Steve, though, this is a long-term plan, and he’s willing to go the distance; well, almost.
Because Steve is the most unaware person you’ll ever meet; he seems to be completely clueless as to how stupid he is, how ridiculous he is, how terrible his hygeine is, how bad his ideas both for what to do in front of the camera and how to start a business; and certainly with speaking to women, when he opens up conversations in bars by showing random people his porn portfolio. And yet, Stewart-Jarrett (star of UK shows The Misfits and Utopia) portrays him with incredible empathy; even as you can’t help but laugh at Steve, you also feel terrible for him. His enthusiasm and drive cannot make up for his complete obliviousness and lack of talent, and even as you want to scream at him for being such a fuck-up, you also want to rescue him from himself and the people using that enthusiasm for their own gain.
This is where Sry stands in for us; Tom loves Steve, but with his tighter grasp on reality, knows that Steve’s ideas will never come to fruition, and if Tom sticks with him, even his little corner of the porn industry will be unattainable. There is a terrific scene where Steve has managed to convince a more established porn director (played to perfection by David Arquette) to cast them as the ‘Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan’ of porn; but even though Steve watches porn all the time, he has no idea of how to perform, and once his ideas are rejected, his reaction hints at the volatility lying underneath the effusive and gregarious surface. Sry and Stewart-Jarrett completely sell the strange rise and fall of Steve and Tom’s friendship; you want these guys to just get out, get normal jobs, and lead normal lives, even as it becomes clear that, especially for Steve, this is impossible.
Make no mistake, these guys are losers; and even as they are surrounded by other losers, there is still a hierarchy. Eric might be making the shittiest porn, but at least he’s the director. The other guys might just be porn actors, but at least there’s not mopes. Heyne shows both of these sides; the more power someone has, the more of an asshole they are; the losers are just trying to cling to whatever little they have, and even if you don’t like them, it’s hard to hate them, knowing what little they have.
Heyne had intimate access to the people connected with this incredibly strange but impossibly true story, giving us a deeply uncomfortable but absolutely compelling story, never holding back from the discomfort, and giving his lead actors the room to be both larger-than-life and honest to their characters and their bizarre actions, right down to the horrifying conclusion that you can’t turn away from.