Without producer and studio pressure to produce a homogenized product to garner the largest possible audience, small independent filmmakers are often afforded more freedom to be creative and unique with their movies. That being said, a lot of independent films turn out bad, bland, boring and poorly written. “The Illegal Use of Joe Zopp,” an official selection for the Wisconsin Film festival, is none of those things. Although the film is not without its shortcomings, with a few key performances and truly quirky — sometimes bizarre — writing, there is something quite endearing about “The Illegal Use of Joe Zopp.”
The movie is the first feature-length production of Wut Wut Alma Moving Pictures, an independent movie company based in Chippewa Falls, Wis. The movie was written, produced, conceived and directed by company founders Scott Brown, Seth Hedrington, Paul Hogseth, Nick Holle, Joe Ott, Sarah Rykal and Emery Skolfield, as well as a slew of their friends and family. According to an interview that aired on Wisconsin Public Television Aug. 28, 2008, production took about four years — with the first screening in 2008 — all on a budget of about $8,000.
The film stars Nick Holle as Joe Zopp, a brilliant misfit and inventor driven away from his small hometown of Purewater by the irresponsible behavior of his strange parents and the boorishness of his classmates. Zopp relocates to a small town in Ohio where he begins a career as a street performer, calling balls, strikes, outs and other sports penalties on passersby for money. When his old friend Winslow (Andr� Egli) discovers him, Zopp is informed everyone in his hometown thinks he’s dead. Zopp decides to return — in disguise — in order to set the record straight. While trying to solve the mystery of who is buried in his place, Zopp unravels an ever-growing conspiracy that leads him in several completely unexpected directions.
The movie’s strength lies in its quirky writing. Aside from the oddity of a street-performing umpire, the movie features subject matter and sight gags from sprawling stories about runaway trains filled with elephants to lawn gnome thievery to respectable town mavens getting caught purchasing giant dildos. While sometimes the zaniness of the writing borders on quirkiness for the sake of being quirky rather than character-driven eccentricity — such as no one in the town of Purewater questioning Zopp’s preposterous assumed identity, “Gregory Pseudonym” — on the whole the comedy works.
This success is partly due to the strong performances of Nick Holle and Cory Walton. Holle, as Zopp, completely captures the nerdiness of his character, creating a perfect vehicle for the awkward and peculiar humor endemic in this film. As the town’s motel manager Louie, Zopp’s friend, narrator and token sassy but wise black guy, Walton almost steals the show with his great sense of comedic timing and inflection, giving a performance filled with charm and charisma.
The production values are rather high, especially considering the extremely meager budget. There were no blatantly obvious continuity or editorial mistakes. The sound quality, no matter the environment, remained consistently high. Aside from a few under-lit nighttime scenes, the lighting was very well done.
The movie’s largest failing was even at 110 minutes it ran rather long. While you’re drawn into the film for the first half, trying to sort through the oddball humor and the mystery of who’s buried in Joe Zopp’s tomb begins to drag in the second half. The movie continually adds elements to the intrigue, but the drama never feels pressured enough — even for a comedy — to sustain meaningful conflict or tension across the entirety of the film.
Still, the movie as a whole is rather interesting and funny. This may be your only chance to see a man in black-and-white stripes accost unsuspecting pedestrians for technical fouls while solving mysteries and performing complicated scientific calculations on the side. If you’re planning on attending any of the films at the Wisconsin Film Festival, and you’re interested in fictional narrative, this picture is a great example of the possibilities inherent in the independent film community and a solid all-around production.
“Illegal Use of Joe Zopp” will be playing tonight at 10:15 p.m. at the Play Circle Theater.