Thanks to the pernicious influence of Quentin Tarantino, there might not be a more overdone subgenre of microbudget indie film than the gangster picture: in which a set of tough-talking wiseguys whose vocabulary and mannerisms seem to come from movies like Goodfellas rather than life. Not even the ever-beloved “seemingly unemployed urban hipsters and their love of terrible indie rock” genre can boast so many entries.
If you just looked at the poster for The Notorious Newman Brothers, written by and starring Brett and Jason Butler – brothers themselves, whose last film we saw around these parts was Confusions of an Unmarried Couple, a story about seemingly unemployed urban hipsters – you might well assume that it was just such a movie. Ah, but you would be deeply mistaken, and probably disappointed that you missed out on what is in fact a very twisty, clever riff on the whole idea of mobster indie films. The film is sly and smart in the way that it first tricks you into thinking it’s a routine gangster film. when in fact it’s a mockumentary, and slyer still in that even as a mockumentary, it’s still not quite a mobster film. It is, rather a film in which two mobsters are found, though the focus is not on their mobby activities so much as on the utter hash they make of being mobsters, and the nervous, dipshit director trying to film them who clearly understands nothing about the world if he genuinely believes that these two people represent any kind of masculine ideal. It’s frequently hilarious and never less than very intelligent in the subtle but unrelenting way it pulls apart the tender fabric of the Newman boys’ tough self-image, and by extension the image of every filmmaker who has tried to make his very own Scarface.
Even the backstory is faintly absurd: an aspiring director, Max Chaplin (played by the film’s director Ryan Noel, who also scored this and Confusions) placed a personal ad offering his services to anybody who wanted to be the subject of a documentary, and it was Paulie Newman (Jason Butler) and his charmingly-named brother Thunderclap (Brett Butler) who answered the call. Any first-year film student could tell you that this is not the most reliable way to find a subject, and yet callow, earnest Max is delighted to have two real mobsters waiting to parade before his camera, even if those two mobsters are likelier to bicker with each other about nonsensical bullshit and spin elaborate, transparent lies about their storied criminal past (the rare “murder in the fifth degree” is involved, we are told), and generally demonstrating that they know nothing more about being mobsters than Max knows about directing a documentary.
At 80 brisk minutes, The Notorious Newman Brothers is in little danger of wearing out its welcome, although in truth very little actually “happens” in the movie: Paulie and Thunderclap ramble before Max’s worshipful lens, they drag him along on petty capers, and he begins to fancy himself a part of their dangerous, high-stakes, suburban world. At its best, the film is a savage mauling of the male self-aggrandizement that informs so much of gangster culture and of independent filmmaking alike; people who think they are much smarter and much cooler than they can possibly demonstrate come in for quite a rough treatment – well-deserved – at the Butlers’ hands. And at its worst, the film is still fast and funny enough to count as a better than average entertainment. A far step up from the stiff Confusions, The Notorious Newman Brothers is a perfect example of what indie movies ought to be about; a funny and intelligent rejection of the straitjacket tropes that define so much of modern cinema, whatever the budget.