Director Ron Mann's new documentary, "Tales of the Rat Fink," is an entertaining but disappointingly superficial portrait of the pioneering car customizer Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.
As with his previous films "Comic Book Confidential" and "Grass," Mann strikes upon a cool and interesting subject with a certain approved countercultural appeal, presents it as such and never much moves beyond that to get to its heart.
An unrepentant slob with a Maynard G. Krebs goatee, Roth was a proponent of the do-it-yourself ethos before there was a term for it.
As the 1950s rolled into the '60s, Roth made cars that bore no resemblance to assembly-line productions — fantastic, futuristic creations with names like Mysterion or Rotar that were eccentric, idiosyncratic and distinctly, wonderfully American.
As a device to avoid talking heads, Mann uses the cars themselves — voiced by Ann-Margret, Jay Leno, artist Robert Williams, wrestler Steve Austin, musician Brian Wilson and others — to handle much of the film's exposition.
It's a cute conceit, but it also impedes getting to the real meat of the matter — Roth's place as an architect and acolyte of what author David Leaf once referred to as "the California myth."
Roth was among those chronicled in the seminal 1963 article "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," in which Tom Wolfe declared that Roth "has kept alive the spirit of alienation and rebellion that is so important to the teen-age ethos that customizing grew up in. He's also the most colorful, and the most intellectual, and the most capricious. Also the most cynical."
In those few sentences, Wolfe more or less says everything that Mann does in 70-some minutes, while also alluding to deeper, darker currents that the filmmaker doesn't particularly acknowledge.
Roth is a touchstone and a beacon for anyone who has ever watched a "Beach Party" movie and felt more aligned with bumbling biker Eric Von Zipper than the clean-cut squares Frankie and Annette.
"Tales of the Rat Fink" is a breezy and lightweight primer, but to really make Roth's work and influence into more than just a nostalgia trip would require a discipline and wit seemingly beyond Mann's easygoing, feel-good survey.
'Tales of the Rat Fink'
MPAA rating: Unrated
An Abramarama Entertainment release. Director-producer Ron Mann. Writer Solomon Vesta. Director of photography Arthur E. Cooper. Editor Terrance Odette. Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes.
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