Cheatin’: Goteborg Review
Veteran animator Bill Plympton, best known for his shorts, commercials and music-video work, writes, produces, directs and hand-draws this adults-only tale of love and infidelity
Part-funded by Kickstarter, almost all drawn by hand (with computer-assisted coloring) and pretty impressive all the way through, Cheatin’ represents the seventh animated feature to flow from the hand of independent cartoon-smith Bill Plympton (Idiots and Angels, I Married a Strange Person). Although the nearly-wordless script for this adults-only tale of love and infidelity is a bit muddled at times, nevertheless as a whole it’s one of Plympton’s most accessible and fluent feature-length works. Longstanding Plympton fans may feel a little disappointed there’s less here of the trademark squelch and gore shock values that made his reputation in the Spike and Mike shorts compilations, but hey, people mellow out, and by this point in his illustrious career Plympton is entitled to make a more commercial personal project. That said, after a warm reception at various festivals including Slamdance and Goteborg, this marketing challenge has so far secured distribution only in France.
Told without any discernible dialogue - although the characters coo, hum and exclaim plenty (the voice cast includes Sophia Takal, Jeremy Baumann and Alex Markowitz) – the story unfolds in an unspecified time and place that looks simultaneously retro (with its old-fashioned gas stations and picture hats) and contemporary, given the presence of vibrators and cellphones. (Composer Nicole Renaud’s accordion-and-violin-heavy score enhances the nostalgic vibe.) At a fairground, bombshell Ella and hunky Jake meet cute at the dodgem cars and before long they’re rollicking about in bed for some R-worthy rumpy pumpy and getting hitched.
Alas, their marital bliss is short-lived. A femme fatale takes a shine to Jake’s distended muscles and jutting jaw and contrives to take what looks like an incriminating snap of Ella but is really just a picture of her getting changed in a room full of male manikins (only in animation would this plot point work). Jake’s heart is broken when he sees the photo, and he becomes a serial adulterer with a long string of different women as Ella sits at home, mourning for her man, and wondering what went wrong.
The resolution, achieved with a magician and a contraption that can migrate souls on command, is contrived and if it weren’t for the fact that nothing in an animated film is ever accidental it would feel like something improvised in haste. Storytelling has never really been Plympton’s strong suit, ever since his first feature The Tune (1992).
What he excels at, and what’s been the foundation of his career in shorts, commercials and music video work along with his distinctive pencil sketch style and caricatured forms, are finely crafted sight gags. Sinuous sequences where one object morphs into another are his stock and trade, and that strength is on ample display in Cheatin’, especially in little interludes where, for instance, Ella puts on make-up or fantasizes about murdering Jake with household objects. It’s pleasingly old-school stuff that harks back to older, non-realist, countercultural schools of cartooning, a style through-line that reaches back to the very early days of Winsor McKay, through Tex Avery shorts and Ralph Bakshi in his Fritz the Cat-heyday.
It’s a bit of a shame that the film’s gender politics are likewise a bit stuck in a kind of 1970s mindset. However, one can’t but admire Plympton’s dedication to his own personal vision and his tenacity, producing work here with the help of a tiny crew of production artists that at moments outshines in imaginative terms the efforts of the big corporate studios and their serried ranks of out-sourced animation drones in cheap labor markets.
Venue: Goteborg Film Festival (Animation); also in Slamdance Film Festival
Production: Bill Plympton Studios
Voice cast: Sophia Takal, Jeremy Baumann, Alex Markowitz, Sita Steele, Jacob Steele
Director, screenwriter: Bill Plympton
Producers: Desiree Stavracos
Executive producers: James Hancock, Adam Rackoff
Art director: Lindsay Woods
Editor: Kevin Palmer
Music: Nicole Renaud
Sound Design: Weston Fonger
Sales: Bill Plympton Studios
No rating, 76 minutes