'That Guy Dick Miller': Edinburgh Review

Courtesy of Edinburgh International Film Festival
Surface-skimming tribute proceeds with disarming if ultimately slightly wearing brio.

The veteran character actor, best known for his collaborations with Roger Corman and Joe Dante, takes center stage in Elijah Drenner's affectionate documentary.

A veteran foot-of-the-bill performer enjoys rare and welcome limelight in That Guy Dick Miller, Elijah Drenner's puppyishly lively and affectionate tribute to the octogenarian character actor. Produced by Drenner and Miller's wife Lainie, it's an unambiguously upbeat celebration of a tireless trouper whose career stretches back to the 1950s and whose dozens of screen-credits range from cheapjack exploitation to megabucks blockbusters. Having bowed to warm reactions at Austin's SXSW in March, this peppy crowdpleaser is finding plenty of festival takers around the circuit and is set for North American theatrical distribution via Canada's IndieCan this winter. Small-screen exposure is a given for a picture which often has the feel of an (over-)extended DVD special feature.

Age 85 at the time of filming, Bronx-born Miller hasn't appeared in a movie during the current decade but remains revered as a venerable example of the "That Guy" actor. A newspaper headline glimpsed early on reads "You know his face, but can you give his name?"-- summing up the tantalising fringe-of-fame, tip-of-tongue quasi-celebrity enjoyed by such ultra-reliable yeomen of the screen as J.T.Walsh, Brion James and James Rebhorn (to name but three). Their identities and filmographies known only to hardcore film-nerds, such dudes (not so many "That Gals" around) are occasionally now being lionized in low-budget documentaries: recent examples include Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party (2005) and Sophie Huber's Harry Dean Stanton - Partly Fiction (2012).

But while the latter adopted a languid, adventurously poetic approach to its laid-back protagonist, That Guy Dick Miller takes its tone from Miller's own high-energy performance style ("nobody can pack 30 seconds with as many words as him", we're assured). Short clips barrel us along at a furious rate; interviews are chopped into brisk sound-bites; zany animations add to the atmosphere of larkish breathlessness. At 90-odd minutes, it's more exhausting than illuminating -- there's not much time for anything resembling proper analysis; John Sayles (commenting on what makes a "good day-player") and Robert Forster ("Every one of those [Hollywood] jobs is politically given") do manage to make salient points in the brief screen-time they're allotted.

Miller's two most faithful employers over the years, Roger Corman and Joe Dante, enjoy an aptly more generous allowance -- Miller earning evident favor from the former for his willingness to work for the director/producer's notoriously stingy pay-checks ("I'll do anythin' in it to be workin'!", Miller remarks of one shoestring enterprise).Several of the stories told will be familiar from Alex Stapleton's 2011 rambuctiously entertaining profile Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, in which Miller appeared. Corman, as always, is on fine professorial form, and there's copious material relating to Miller's most famous starring role, as crazed artist Walter Paisley in his 1959 cult classic A Bucket of Blood. Dante, meanwhile, has famously cast Miller in nearly every film he's ever made, ensuring the actor an enduring "sort-of-iconic status" among the many fans of The Howling, Gremlins and Small Soldiers.

The perils of the journeyman's lot are occasionally touched upon ("there just wasn't any money" Miller remarks of one late-1960s dry spell), but anything resembling a dark cloud -- "I think Dick has gone through a lot" ... "Dick doesn't suffer fools gladly" -- is quickly dispersed in favor of the next fun clip. These extracts are well-chosen and briskly assembled by Drenner, working -- as was the case with his debut feature-length doc, 2010's American Grindhouse -- as his own editor. His decision to have Jason Brandt's loungey-jazzy score -- always more distraction than embellishment -- playing under many of the clips counts as a misstep, however, and in the second half some of his tangential meanderings (into the making of Gremlins, for example) tax the viewer's patience.

Proof-reading of the credit-roll clearly wasn't a priority, meanwhile, with flubs like 'Alan' Arkush, Belinda 'Belaski' and Chris 'Wallas' creeping in. By this stage, however, That Guy Dick Miller has exerted enough rough-edged charm to keep viewers content, functioning both as a portrait of a craggily no-nonsense mensch and also of his long-lasting marriage: the Millers make for an amusingly bickering pair, like a favorite aunt and uncle with a trove of colorful tales to share. Lainie Miller isn't the only distaffer to make an impact in what's generally a testostorone-slanted project: Miller's Rock and Roll High School colleague, Warhol graduate and classic 'That Gal' Mary Woronov, is long overdue an adoring documentary tribute of her own.



Production company: Autumn Rose

Director / Screenwriter / Editor: Elijah Drenner

Producers: Lainie Miller, Elijah Drenner

Executive producers: Julie Corman, Jeffrey Schwarz, Timo Zimmerman

Cinematographer: Elle Schneider

Composer: Jason Brandt.

Sales: Autumn Rose, Toluca Lake, California.

No Rating, 91 minutes