In ‘Mudge Boy’, Emile Hirsch Comes With Quirks And Perks

Emile Hirsch certainly is his own man. Yes, he did Speed Racer, that awful Wachowski Brothers kids spectacle; and the lowest common denominator doesn’t get much lower than Girl Next Door, but you have to give him credit for much of his other work. No matter what you think of the idealistic existentialism of Into The Wild, Hirsch’s performance was truly remarkable. And Imaginary Heroes, the 2004 comedy/drama starring Jeff Daniels and Sigourney Weaver, made a lasting impression on me as well.

Granted, one of those impressions was that Hirsch is one of the most attractive Young Leonardos on the scene, and I admit that was one of the main reasons why I recently caught his 2003 movie The Mudge Boy. Still, I wouldn’t count out the fact that – Racer and Girl notwithstanding – he has shown a penchant for choosing roles that doesn’t necessarily fit neatly into the box made for prettyboys like him, to explain why I was drawn to this movie. Trusted with a script that, though interesting in principle, feels a little forced and sketchy, Hirsch already then showed an ability to make his characters more interesting than they probably merited. In the hands of a lesser actor, Chris McCandless of Wild could have been easy to dismiss as a naive and self-absorbed idealist, but Hirsch manages to slowly melt our mental defense mechanisms. Likewise, his Duncan Mudge in The Mudge Boy might have been considered merely a collection of quirks and deep-rooted emotions, were it not for the sense of unpredictability and vulnerability that Hirsch’s performance exudes. That’s not to say he always succeeds at giving a sense of clear direction to this somewhat unfocused movie, but at least he keeps us interested.

Duncan Mudge is an insecure teenager who lives on a farm with his father. Duncan’s insecurities, ranging from sexual identity to a more general sense of social awkwardness (manifested in a somehat disturbing relationship with his pet chicken), alienates him from his father, and he also struggles to be accepted as any more than an outcast by his local peers. Over time however, Duncan strikes a friendly relationship with Perry (Tom Guiry), – a guy hardened by his abusive father – a relationship that quickly gets complicated because Perry doesn’t not know how to react to his obvious attraction to Duncan. It’s an open question whether this is meant to be primarily a gay movie, or if instead it’s a movie about breakdown in communication and the hardships of rural America (or a combination of both), but my sense is that the Duncan/Perry storyline is the central point to the story.

I’m not arguing that each and every detail of the story should be spelled out with unmistakable clarity, but no matter which storyline is supposed to be the overarching one, I felt that this movie somehow failed to make a connection to me as a viewer. Even though Hirsch’s performance is impressive, both his and Tom Guiry’s characters remain too sketchy to form an emotional bond with me. It could be interesting to delve into Perry’s conflicted feelings, but mostly he remains just Duncan’s important yet underdeveloped (love?) interest. The same holds true for Duncan himseld. He seems like an extraordinary complex young man, but throughout this movie we mainly get to know him through his quirks (his naivete, his fondness for women’s clothes, his love for his chicken), without any real investigation into what made him feel this way, all despite Hirsch’s best efforts otherwise. Therefore, the cathartic moment near the end doesn’t feel quite so cathartic after all. I’m not saying that writer/director Michael Burke uses his lead character’s quirks solely for emotional or entertainment value, but his story still feels like it’s missing something.

From some of the criticism I’ve read of The Mudge Boy, it seems like many people have been irked by the sexual aspect of it. I can’t say I was, though there is a very unpleasant rape scene in there. But having seen Jamie Bell in Hallam Foe (titled Mister Foe in its American theatrical release), I know that one of the most important things you have to do when you’re telling a story about oedipal hangups, cross-dressing and general quirkiness, is to make absolutely sure we know and understand enough about the characters to not simply dismiss them as nothing like us. You should still watch The Mudge Boy for the talent and sexiness that is Emile Hirsch, or even to see if you can get a better grasp of it than I could, but if you’re going to see only one movie about oedipal hangups, cross-dressing and general quirkiness this year, I still recommend Hallam Foe.

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8 Responses to In ‘Mudge Boy’, Emile Hirsch Comes With Quirks And Perks

  1. poeticgrin says:

    This was a crazy movie. With the chicken and all. But you know what? I totally liked it.

  2. queerlefty says:

    I certainly tried to like it, but I just didn’t feel all that much for the characters (except more unseemly feelings toward Hirsch). Generally, I tend to appreciate any film that tries to provoke some sort of emotional or moral reaction (even Larry Clarke movies) better than more conventional films. A spectacular failure at saying something important should be held higher than an uninspired attempt at reproducing conventional wisdom. So, I guess you could say I sort of feel bad about not liking this film better than I did.

  3. DougHwrite says:

    I grew up on a farm, and I understand Perry well enough, or at least I’ve known guys a lot like him. Immediately after the wedding dress-sex scene, Perry’s attitude looked so familiar!
    The chicken head-sucking was way too far over the top. Anyway, Emile Hirsch is beautiful.

  4. queerlefty says:

    Thanks for the comment, Doug.

    The chicken thing sure was a little weird, but unless he was harming the chicken, I can’t get all that worked up about it. However, I sometimes felt that it was simply used as a quirk to make Duncan seem more complex.

    It could be that the portrayal of Perry is about right, and Tom Guiry’s performance was quite good, but the character itself remained a little too sketchy.

    But you’re right of course: Hirsch is one of the most beautiful men living today.

  5. I guess I’m one of those people who really liked SPEED RACER *AND* THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. They were fun for me to watch even though SR is way too long, and TGN needed more depth.

    As for Emile (we’re on a first name basis–lol jk), I think he’s brill in pretty much everything. I’m most likely biased because he has that certain charm that makes me smile every time I see him (yes, even those hairy shirtless photos of him). But my favorite has got to be IMAGINARY HEROES (INTO THE WILD is a close second) because back then I could relate with the character the most, most prominently during my high school years. Even though I can’t relate quite as much nowadays, I still wanna cry like a baby during that one scene with his father involving a tight hug. :'(

    Can’t wait for MILK (oh, James Franco…) and TAKING WOODSTOCK!

  6. queerlefty says:

    I agree on everything you said. Emile certainly is one of the most beautiful people in the world (even I am no fan of body hair). I discovered him by an accident zapping through the channels, when I caught a glimpse of him in GND. I melted on the spot. His mere presence made the movie bearable, but I’m very happy he went on to do better stuff later.

    IH could very well be one of the most underrated movies of this decade. It’s exceptionally well-written, and Jeff Daniels portrayal of the father feels painfully real. I actually tend to love most small American movies about crumbling families, from ‘The Ice Storm’ to ‘American Beauty’, ‘The Squid And The Whale’ and ‘Igby Goes Down’. I didn’t like ‘Running With Scissors’, though.

    ‘Taking Woodstock’ should be brilliant. I mean, Ang Lee directing a rock ‘n’ roll period piece starring Emile Hirsch? Yes, thank you.

    ‘Milk’ looks very good too. It would be nice if Sean Penn could get his groove back (to me, he lost it with ‘I Am Sam’ (ugh!!), and ‘Mystic River’ and the truly terrible ‘It’s All About Love’ did little to change that, despite his Academy Award for MR). And I can’t help but it, but I think Emile looks great in this one too.

  7. Smilie says:

    After reading your blog I watched “The Mudge Boy” this weekend. I have to agree with you…it was okay but I didn’t like it as much as I had hoped.

    The movie had potential, but the impression I got from the movie was that they couldn’t be bothered to explore the depth of the characters. It seemed to be more about making Duncan seem wierd and keeping him shirtless whenever possible (not that I’m complaining).

    This was the first movie that I’ve seen with Emile Hirsch. I’m going to have to find more! Damn, he’s sexy!

  8. queerlefty says:

    He sure is! I’ve probably said this several times already, but he looks set to become the Leonardo DiCaprio of his generation, and I mean that as a huge compliment.

    I would love to have the chance to watch ‘Imaginary Heroes’ or ‘Into The Wild’ for the first time again. They’re both equally excellent, and a great introduction to the world of Hirsch.

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