“Gentlemen! Step right up! Been feeling down in the dumps? Lacking that usual masculine vitality? Well, Doctor John Romulus Brinkley has just the thing for you!”
“See that goat over there? The one frolicking about in a charged, even amorous fashion? Well, see, all we have to do is remove a certain gland from that there goat and insert it into your”—
This is the point where any sane, rational fellow would put his hand up, apologize for wasting the good doctor’s time, and exit the premises. However, as has been shown throughout history, human males concerned about their virility are not the sanest, most rational individuals some of the time.
That might explain, at least in part, how Dr. Brinkley, an alcoholic bigamist with shoddy medical credentials, was able to spin his “goat gland” quackery into fame, fortune, and very nearly the governorship of the state of Kansas. The documentary that fancifully brings his unique American story to life is, of course, entitled “Nuts!”
The movie’s director, Penny Lane (not to be confused with Pennie Lane, the inspiration for Kate Hudson’s “Almost Famous” character), clearly has a fascination with individuals who’ve been able to pull a fast one on the American people. Her last film was “Our Nixon,” which used home movies and recorded phone calls to construct a humanizing—but still creepy—collage of the Nixon Administration.
Even more than Nixon, Brinkley embodies the credo of “fake it ‘til you make it.” As “Nuts!” unspools the details of his astonishing biography (many of which are revealed to be pure invention), your opinion of the guy vacillates between pathetic fascination and bitter contempt. He knew his fake impotence cure didn’t work, and that people could (and did) die after falling for his spiel. But there’s something about his insane persistence that can’t help but grab you.
After all, he was an innovator, pioneering in his use of mass mailings and mass media to promote himself and his products. After the government took away his license to operate the radio station he owned in Kansas, he built a transmitter in northern Mexico that, with one million watts of power, could reach most of the U.S. It was, at the time, the most powerful radio station on the planet.
Lane has reams of material to draw upon, thanks to Brinkley’s penchant for self-promotion, and she uses endearingly handmade-style animation to illustrate various dramatic scenes and testimonials. Of course, Brinkley’s house of lies ultimately collapses on him and he vanishes to the cobweb-strewn attic of pop-cultural history. But Lane’s movie does an excellent job of dusting him off and trotting him out as an exemplar of that American can-do spirit taken to the extreme.
(“Nuts!” opens Friday, July 1, at Cinema 21) GRADE: A-