"NUTS!" opens with a dusty hand-drawn animation of two goats fucking ever so gently. That pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the Sundance-winning sorta-documentary feature about the empire-building fiction dreamed up by John Romulus Brinkley, the early 20th-century "doctor" who implanted goat gonads in male patients' testicles to cure impotence, among other ailments. That's not the truly crazy part: In the process of pretending to pioneer an absurd remedy, Brinkley actually pioneered border-blaster radio, infomercials, the sound truck, and some other stuff. He put a Kansas micro-town on the map. He nearly became governor. Oh, and he set the stage for early rock 'n roll. He was Rupert Murdoch, Dr. Oz, and Colonel Sanders all in one.
Director Penny Lane ("Our Nixon") pieces the story together using soundbites of Brinkley's radio programming, old photos and family videos, interviews with historians and experts, newspaper clippings, and, most predominantly, animated dramatizations of scenes from Brinkley's life. Each "chapter" is animated by a different artist. While some are more effective in expressing Brinkley's charismatic, manipulative character than others, the divergent sequences come together like patchwork. The visual variations create abrupt shifts in voice and focus, rendering the truth increasingly unclear. The only solid pieces to hold onto, it seems, are artifacts from Brinkley's life—news headlines proclaiming the "success" of his surgeries, his voice recorded for his radio programs, images of happy patients—which point to a more pleasant story than reality. The man was a media mogul; he controlled his own narrative.
In retelling Brinkley's life and lies, Lane and writer Thom Stylinski explore how to tell a true story using false information. Most of that false information comes from Brinkley's authorized 1934 biography "The Life of a Man" by Clement Wood, the author of other riveting titles like "Tom Sawyer Grows Up." In the beginning, we're told that a young, poor Brinkley stumbled into the dean's office at Johns Hopkins to ask that he might study medicine, only to be mocked for having no shoes—it's all very Dickensian. From the beginning, the narrator seems unreliable and at times awkward (some scenes go too far in the attempt to vilify Brinkley's enemies—evil laugh, dim lighting, that kind of thing—and shatter the illusion of truth), but as the audience you still feel drawn into the fantasy.
Though lighthearted in tone, "NUTS!" plays out the serious dangers of sociopathic liars. In a time when Donald Trump is raking in votes from poor, undereducated white folks, it's illuminating to see how similar people fell for an even bigger scam almost a century ago. We find it easy to ridicule them, both then and now—to separate ourselves from the gullible and desperate (I mean, it's easier now in part because Trump supporters are clearly xenophobic, but you get it). But through careful storytelling, "NUTS!" shows how, under the right circumstances, anyone will overlook obvious gaps and inconsistencies to continue believing in a different world, one where miracles are real and goat balls will get you hard.
Screens Friday, May 6 at 4:30 and Sunday, May 8 at 2:15 at MICA Brown Center.