Had he lived to witness the rise of video on demand, the late, arguably great shock-show host Morton Downey Jr. might have appreciated the fact that a documentary about his aptly sensational rise and fall is coming straight to the people via the likes of YouTube and iTunes.
In "Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie," the man (in)famous for catering to the frustrations of disenfranchised Americans is seen on "Nightline" in 1988, telling Ted Koppel that his purpose is to "establish a platform" for those without membership in the political and cultural elite — those who don't frequent art-house movie theaters, for example.
Indeed, bringing it home — the good, the bad and, especially, the ugly — was Downey's principal mission in life. Still, "Evocateur" reveals that he was also driven by the desire to one-up his domineering old man, an Irish tenor and 1930s hitmaker whom he grew up loathing. The film does an excellent job of showing how hate-TV was molded in the image of snarling, chain-smoking, guest-berating Downey, whose brief ratings reign near the peak of the Reagan-Bush era was largely about giving the finger to feminism and every other sort of progressive movement.
Holding a mirror up to America, with its ravenous Roman Coliseum crowd, the late-'80s evocateur may have been a genius or a menace — or both, as the film seems to argue. Certainly Downey's work in tapping the rage of the conservative underclass predates that of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly by a decade or more. That's a dubious distinction, some would say, although "Evocateur" makes clear, particularly as Downey's fandom dwindled in the run-up to Bill Clinton's presidency, that a host is nothing without an approving audience.
Also new to VOD
A much gentler comic figure than Downey (who isn't?), writer/director/actor Jeff Garlin — best known for playing Larry David's manager on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" — has made his second feature, "Dealin' With Idiots," recently released to Amazon on Demand and other VOD platforms. In the low-key, mildly amusing indie film, Garlin stars as Max Morris, a stand-up comedian and filmmaker who wants to be a good dad to his baseball-playing son Jackie, but can't help exploiting the Little Leaguers' parents for screenplay material — much as Garlin, father of a pint-sized sandlotter, has done here.
For those seeking the source of screwball, there's 1934's "Twentieth Century" by Hollywood master Howard Hawks, subject of an upcoming retrospective at the Trylon and Heights theaters. Vudu and iTunes have high-def versions of the film, starring John Barrymore as a Broadway theater director and Carole Lombard as his muse. That comedy is missing from Take-Up Productions' six-film series, as is Hawks' hysterical "Monkey Business" (1952), a Cary Grant classic — available on Netflix — that is recommended here, too.
Rob Nelson is a National Society of Film Critics member whose reviews appear regularly in the trade magazine Variety.