Monday, June 30, 2014

Bronx Obama [film review]

As Barack Obama's profile rapidly ascended during the 2008 presidential primaries, a bartender in an establishment frequented by Louis Ortiz commented on his striking resemblance to the politician, right down to the prominent size of their ears. The middle-aged Ortiz didn't see it until he shaved his goatee one day, at which point the widowed single father of a teenager (in a fitting moment of optimism-based symmetry) felt stirred by something that had been in short supply since being laid off from his phone company job a year prior - hope. Filmmaker Ryan Murdock saw the potential in Ortiz's engaging story as an Obama impersonator, first presenting it as a radio feature on NPR's This American Life, then as a New York Times short film, and now as his feature length debut, Bronx Obama. As a likeable underdog thrust into an unlikely and challenging situation, Ortiz makes a highly ideal documentary protagonist.

Ortiz's new career starts modestly, as he competes with the costumed characters in Times Square for tourist tips and makes appearances in rap videos, on HBO's Flight Of The Conchords, and in some commercials and a low-rent film in Asia. Eager to improve the overall pedigree of his gigs, Ortiz signs with a talent manager and steps his game up, evolving from a mere Obama look-alike to a full-on Obama impersonator capable of believably emulating the now-President's gestures and voice (losing his heavy Bronx accent proves to be particularly challenging for the Puerto Rican), as well as honing his acting and comedic skills. The manager, a nasty piece of work named Dustin Gold, produces effective results in improving Ortiz's mimicking abilities, but they come as a result of demanding expectations and some oftentimes downright abusive behaviour. Gold enlists Ortiz, along with Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney impersonators, to perform satirical routines at Republican functions during the 2012 election season, where the grind of travelling and Ortiz's discomfort with the humiliating (and borderline racist) material begin to take their toll. Not unexpectedly, a film that's centred around one man's experience impersonating another person eventually crosses an identity crisis threshold, as Ortiz wearily complains "I miss being myself" right before the 2012 election. Along with his sense of self, another casualty of Ortiz's demanding work is his ability to properly parent only daughter Raina, a talented basketball player who Ortiz has to send to live with her grandparents in Florida (Raina's mother died during her childhood). The sweet father-daughter relationship provides a firm secondary layer to Bronx Obama that significantly strengthens the viewer's investment in Ortiz's struggle.

Ortiz's charmingly wiseass sense of humour and the bizarre nature of his work that provides many moments of visual-based amusement (such as Ortiz-as-Obama riding the New York subway, buying a lottery ticket in a bodega, or performing at a music event with Nelson Mandela and Bono impersonators) instill Bronx Obama with a predominantly light tone, but Murdock's delightful film also delivers some thoughtful rumination on the ailing condition of the American dream.

Rating: B

1 comment:

  1. This sounds even more interesting than Alfred and Jackobine. I will keep my eyes open for it.

    ReplyDelete

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