Jordan Susman's "The Anarchist Cookbook" is an admirably ambitious political satire but is stronger on soundtrack narration than on-camera dramatization.
Susman, in his feature debut, has his main character, Puck (Devon Gummersall), describe his coming of age as a past event, revealing himself to be an exceptionally bright man who now realizes how stupid he was not to try to stop a dangerous young man, Johnny Black (Dylan Bruno), who infiltrated an East Dallas commune committed to peaceful protest. Indeed, the infiltrator is so obviously a power-mad sociopath from the get-go that it is amazing that not only Puck but also the commune leader Johnny Red (John Savage) and others fail to see through him immediately.
Instead of telling us what happened step by step, Susman should be depicting not just the events that Johnny Black affects but how he cast his spell over the group in the first place. Well-cast, Bruno is an intelligent, forceful presence, but he never really gets a chance to reveal Black's persuasive powers.
The commune is headquartered in a derelict house, which in addition to Puck, Johnny Red and Red's girlfriend, Gin (Sabine Singh), is home to Puck's best pal, the dense but sweet Double D (Steve Van Wormer), the nervy lesbian Karla (Gina Philips) and Sweeney (Johnny Whitworth), an easy-going Lothario. Living in the backyard is a small group of hippie-type families. Red is a naïve '60s leftover with a great admiration for Sweden's social structure who preaches and practices classical peaceful protest. If a factory is polluting the environment he would try to organize the workers, stage a public protest and go so far to chain himself to the plant's fence to achieve his goal. Wielding a copy of William Powell's 1969 "The Anarchist Handbook" with its recipes for making bombs, etc., Black turns up, declaring among other things that it is useless to protest the violence in the system because the system is violence. Appalled, Red explains he won't permit a copy of the book on the shelves of the commune bookstore. Yet the commune lets Black hang around, even after his shockingly brutal beating of a security guard during one of its political maneuvers.
The commune suffers a series of run-ins with the law, which finds Puck sentenced to house arrest at his family's home in Plano, where he concentrates on a budding romance with a young Republican (Katharine Towne). Black then takes over the group and teams with neo-Nazis and other fringe types. What Black has in mind is as ingenious as Puck's plans to stop him — that is, if he can.
Susman's payoff is so inspired and amusingly ironic that it's a shame all that came before comes alive only fitfully because it is so under-dramatized. Even so, Gummersall goes a long way toward keeping the film hanging together, with a strong assist from others, Savage in particular. "The Anarchist Cookbook" bristles with wit and ideas, and it's possible that Susman could develop into a filmmaker as satisfying as he is provocative.
'The Anarchist Cookbook'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Sex, drugs, violence, language
Devon Gummersall ... Puck (Peter Gold)
Dylan Bruno ... Johnny Black
John Savage ... Johnny Red
Katharine Towne ... Jody
Gina Philips ... Karla
A Freedonia Productions presentation. Writer-director Jordan Susman. Producers Robert Latham Brown, Amy Greenspun, Jordan Susman. Cinematographer Brown Cooper. Editor Alan E. Bell. Music Josh Kramon. Costumes Kathy Russell. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
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