The United States of America
“This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” - Horace Walpole
George Washington Winsterhammerman hasn’t felt happy in quite some time. Oh sure, he has a enviable life. After all, he has a decent job as a Level Three “TUNT” employee at the Jeffers Corporation, the single largest business in world history which simultaneously maintains de facto control over the United States government. He has a lovely wife, a son, and a massive single family home in the suburbs. As his name suggests, he is even a descendent of the original George Washington, leader of the American Revolution and the first President of the United States. But despite all of these things, George Washington Winsterhammerman isn’t happy. Even worse, he has begun to have dreams when he goes to sleep at night. And everyone knows that having dreams is the first sign that you might explode. See, over 100,000 people have spontaneously exploded for no apparent reason.
George Washington Winsterhammerman
George has recently seen a doctor to investigate if he was in danger of exploding, but he was given a clean bill of health, relatively speaking. As the doctor said, “Mr. Winsterhammerman, you seem like someone who’s able to follow orders well, you have a desire to please, you’re a pleasant, affable sort of fellow who doesn’t seem to want much, perhaps just to be included. Judging from the somewhat dull look in your eyes I would rate your intelligence at ‘average.’ All of which is good.” So George Washington Winsterhammerman has everything going in his favor. And yet, he dreams.
Such is the world of Visioneers, the first film by writer-director team Brandon and Jared Drake. The film has been advertised as a black comedy, but I think to do so would be disrespectful. Visioneers is so much more than just a comedy with black humor. Instead, it is a devastating examination of the relationship between tragedy and comedy. Many like to imagine a line, however thin, between the two. But I’ve begun to doubt that comedy and tragedy are two different things. The thought first occurred to me when I recently re-watched Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), arguably the greatest blend of laughter and tears ever committed to the screen. In the famous bread-roll dance scene, I couldn’t figure out whether to laugh at Chaplin’s antics or weep at the cruelty of the women who tricked him. I frequently felt the same emotion while watching Visioneers. On the one hand I wanted to laugh at the scenes that demonstrated the complete absurdity of George’s world. Who wouldn’t laugh at a society where flipping your middle finger and saying "Jeffers morning" was a standard greeting?
"Jeffers morning, everyone."
George’s wife watches a show where women discuss how the use of “vaginal butter” and the ownership of 12-gauge shotguns are the keys to staying happy!
On the ride home from work, George is serenaded by radio commercials with such infectious jingles as:
If you wanna be happy and have lots of friends,
Eat fried chicken, fried chicken makes a difference.
And if you wanna have fun and not blow to pieces,
Eat fried chicken, fried chicken, it’s delicious!
Can't argue with that logic.
And yet, all of the laughter makes one feel nervous and uncomfortable. It’s very clear that George lives in a truly hellish society where genuine emotions and feelings are repressed and replaced by kitschy, artificial substitutes such as television, consumer goods, and blind loyalty to the Jeffers Corporation.
Say hello to Mr. Jeffers.
When George’s brother Julieen, a former Level Five employee, moves into his pool-house after quitting his job, we view him as an amusing oddity despite the fact that he is clearly the only person we’ve seen who is actually happy and content with his life. His achievement of what we as the viewers view as normalcy make him an outsider. In another scene, to combat the increase of explosion cases the Jeffers Corporation forces its employees to wear silly outfits and hug giant teddy bears. At first, we laugh. But when one of George’s co-workers has a particularly violent reaction to the overstuffed animals, our hearts sink into our stomachs. Yes, there is humor in this world. But it comes at the expense of its occupants’ very humanity.
Let's just say that what happens next isn't pretty.
Eventually George seeks solace in the form of his ex-boss Charisma who was suddenly fired. He discovers her working in her father’s cafe in an “undeveloped” part of the country. They find a glimmer of hope and happiness in each other. But the powers that be conspire to try and keep them apart. From there George’s world continues to collapse. Julieen is violently taken into custody by government agents. The government suddenly declares explosions as a “threat to our way of life” and begins a campaign to install thought inhibitors into all of its citizens. These inhibitors are, of course, manufactured and distributed by the Jeffers Corporation. Media personalities start to blow up during live broadcasts. In one of the film’s most devastating scenes, George and his wife witness the “vaginal butter” lady suffer a mental breakdown when she learns that she has been instructed to tell people that “happiness is being happy.”
I won’t reveal what happens in the last few scenes because I believe that it is something that you have to experience for yourself. I won’t even say if it’s happy or sad. You need to see it with your own two eyes. It is the perfect conclusion to the Drake brothers first film. I praise a lot of films as part of my job as a movie critic. As such, I can say that some films have better acting than Visioneers, although Zach Galifianakis’ performance as George would have easily earned an Oscar nod if it had gained a wider release. Some films have better cinematography. And some films demonstrate a greater level of craftsmanship. But despite this, Visioneers is truly something special. Since first watching it, the film has haunted my dreams and occupied my fantasies. There is something so basic, so primitive, and so pure at the heart of Visioneers that it stands in a league of its own. Most Oscar winners wish that they could claim the same.