At what point in a failed artistic career does persistence stop being a quality worth admiring? Documentarian Scott Christopherson never quite asks that question in The Insufferable Groo, whose subject Stephen Groo has cranked out 166 no-budget movies using innocent bystanders as cast and crew. (By the time this doc was ready for release, that filmography was up to 200.) Disinclined to investigate the films’ quality beyond their sheer throw-it-all-up-there diversity, Christopherson focuses mostly on the determination required to make them, even when filmmaking comes at the expense of his family’s welfare. Less entertaining than many of its predecessors (including Chris Smith’s 1999 American Movie), the doc will benefit a bit from appearances by Jack Black and Jared Hess, but may leave many viewers wishing Groo would pawn his camera and let someone boss him around for a change.
A graduate of Brigham Young University’s film program who would likely be disavowed by his old professors, Groo lives in both Provo, Utah, and his own private Idaho. When he’s in production, which is apparently most of the time, he may shoot as many as 148 setups in a day; from what we see here, the quality is about what you’d expect given that pace. The doc never lets its clips run long enough for a trash-film connoisseur to guess whether these movies are eccentric enough to be called outsider art; the smart money is on “no.”
One thing we can say, though, is they run the gamut of fanboy enthusiasms. Groo has cast himself in Joker/Batman fan films, boy-band lip-sync videos and Matrix ripoffs; when he’s not blatantly swiping IP from Resident Evil or Yu-Gi-Oh, he’s imagining Tolkien-esque elves venturing into the modern world. He seems especially taken with that last theme, and when he finally teams up with an actual working producer (Jared Harris, one of this doc’s producers), his aim is to remake an elf-human romance called The Unexpected Race that he shot in 2004. For the cast, he’s thinking of Bruce Willis, Sam Rockwell and Jack Black.
Black, at least, isn’t all that far-fetched. Black’s Nacho Libre director Jared Hess, another BYU alum, discovered Groo’s work when he was in school, and has since made it a habit to buy his videos for actors when wrapping production on a film. Hess and Black share a fascination with the uncelebrated auteur; after a false start or two, the actor will indeed make his way into the Unexpected Race remake.
The doc’s second half chronicles production of that film, and is the point at which many viewers will slide from bemused near-admiration of Groo to something more judgy. Turns out, he’s kind of a dick. Groo enlists the help of a cinematography student named Lauren Vanderwerken and makes her life hell, ignoring the technical knowledge and professionalism she brings to her work; he fires her abruptly before the shoot, then essentially lets her come back if she promises to keep her ideas about silks and bounce boards to herself.
Unlike, say, American Movie‘s Mark Borchardt, Groo’s brand of directorial tyranny is uncharismatic. And his version of guerilla filmmaking is more self-sabotaging than seat-of-the-pants fun: More than once, we see him getting busted for shooting where he appears to have had no plausible strategy for stealing the shots. He doesn’t even have the grandiose sense of purpose that drove Pentecostal minister Richard Gazowsky to attempt a biblical sci-fi epic in Michael Jacobs’ 2007 doc Audience of One. He’s just a guy with juvenile interests and an unearned belief that he knows better than anybody else. Happily, his wife and kids and friends have accepted that as part of who he is. But beyond that small clique of so-bad-it’s-good-ers who will embrace anything truly terrible, it’s hard to imagine many strangers will share the Groo family’s indulgent attitude.
Production company: Soro Films
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Director: Scott Christopherson
Producers: Jared Harris, Jared Hess, Scott Christopherson, Eric Robertson
Executive producers: Roger Fields, Sam Adair, Wade Hollingshaus, Carter Nelson
Directors of photography: Tim Irwin, Jack Allred, Scott Christopherson
Editor: Renny McCauley
Composer: Eric Robertson