'The Arbalest' Review: SXSW Winner Isn't A Movie, But A Wes Anderson YouTube Parody Video From Hell

Hunter S. Thompson's pale parody in 'The Arbalest.' Fake Wood Wallpaper

‘Twee’ has become one of those insulting words, like ‘bro’ and ‘hipster’, that was just too useful for its own good, pushed until it became stretched out with use. This is a shame, since twee—cutesy, affected and too clever to be smart—fits The Arbalest like a tan, mohair sports coat paired with a vintage pocket square.

That the SxSW judges named The Arbalest the winner of the grand jury prize for narrative features suggests they’re unfamiliar with an execrable microtrend in YouTube viral sensations: “What If Wes Anderson Directed _______?”

Wes Anderson “parodies” of Lord of the Rings, Forrest Gump, Spider-Man, Star Wars, Scream and more have popped up recently (SNL hopped on board too). It’s the perfect vehicle for young filmmakers without ideas of their own to nab attention, since movie websites love an easy story that piggybacks on a highly searchable and beloved movie. Here’s “What If Wes Anderson Directed X-Men?”

The Arbalest is “What If Wes Anderson Directed A Hunter S. Thompson Biopic Starring A Jim Carrey Impersonator?”

The Arbalest is framed like a biopic, as an aging toy inventor recalls his life of fame and obsession to a 60 Minutes- like TV show. What he reveals doesn’t tell us much at all. The focus is Foster Kalt (Mike Brune), a wannabe toy inventor who becomes more famous than Neil Armstrong after a better toy inventor, Sylvia (Tallie Medel), hands over her prototype for inexplicable reasons (“Your name will look better on the box” is the one that makes more sense).

Kalt becomes obsessed with Sylvia after they spend a night drinking in a hotel room together. The energy of the “party” scene they share is permanently fixed at that level where people get morose, quiet and deeply uninteresting (one shot of Peanuts character-esque “dancing” does nothing to change the general tenor of the sequence), so it’s hard to say what Kalt sees in Sylvia that would motivate 30 years of obsessive stalking.

The Arbalest follows Kalt through three stages of his life. When he meets Sylvia he’s a quiet dud, which means his later periods of obsessiveness and eccentricity emerge from somewhere the audience isn’t made privy to. When Sylvia, baffled by Kalt’s obsession over one boring night together, explains, “I was drunk and high and fucked up,” we are left just as confused as she is.

Kalt’s mental state is the object of The Arbalest, but it never finds a way into its character, who’s more pastiche than human. We watch as Kalt goes from Mad Men style nothing to 70s shaved Travis Bickle, ending as a contemplative Steve Jobs visionary. Each step feels like a page from the Dewey Cox school of character progression, as Kalt puts on the new look of the era and allows overblown costuming and set design to do the legwork the character and script cannot.

Perhaps the biggest chunk of The Arbalest is spent in Kalt’s Hunter S. Thompson period. He lives alone in a cabin, watching Sylvia through binoculars and drinking a cherry-whisky concoction. Here Kalt becomes his most unbearable, Brune’s performance full of lick-lipping tics, manic flourishes and cartoon grimaces, like a man living out his own parody. It feels like director and writer Adam Pinney asked Brune for Hunter S. Thompson and kept pushing until we’re stuck in a cabin with Hunter Gathers from The Venture Bros. or Doonesbury’s Uncle Duke.

While The Arbalest strives to be comedic in spirit, it’s rarely funny. Instead Pinney seems to be going for a kind of oblique, wry, rueful look at Kalt’s world. In practice this means conversations in The Arbalest are completely devoid of any real humanity, preferring instead self-enamored, disaffected back-and-forths worthy of a campfire sketch put on by Beckett’s boy scouts. “Is he dead?” “He’s not alive.” “Jesus, is this sad?” “Yeah, it is, but…” It’s insufferable.

Only the end of The Arbalest—as Kalt unveils his final invention—shows a spark of life, largely by blowing up a stupid idea to audacious proportions. It’s a frustrating decision to critique, since the final invention isn’t meant to be literal, so going after its verisimilitude feels like missing the point. Still, without spoiling anything, it’s hard not to disbelieve the invention entirely in light of The Arbalest’s own fictional world, which, like ours, could have only emerged from Kalt’s invention having already existed.

The Arbalest is only 76 minutes, which sounds merciful until you realize you’re trapped in a dark theater with a feature length film that should’ve been a four minute YouTube video. When The Arbalest tries to find a soul with Kalt's eye-rolling line “If I could make something to fix a broken heart, I’d have invented it a long time ago,” someone in my screening popped the moment with a shouted “Hey-O!”

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