American: The Bill Hicks Story: A Tribute to the Late Comic

It's probably inevitable that a biopic will be made about the late comic Bill Hicks (1961–1994), who achieved his greatest success shortly before cancer killed him. (See related story.) One wonders, however, how this caustic, skeptical Texan would've felt about his posthumous veneration. American, made by British directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, gets uncomfortably close to hagiography. And Hicks was no saint. There's a cult around the performer that casts him as the only truth-to-power champion of the late Cold War era, as if it were he alone who stood between Reagan and fascism. Naturally all his friends say Hicks was a genius; and testimonials from his family are moving. But American is most interesting when it doesn't argue for Hicks' profundity. Re-enactments and animated passages illustrate his early life; old family snapshots are rotoscoped as in Waking Life to show how the teenager snuck out his bedroom window and onto Houston comedy stages. (Actual clips show a remarkably self-assured young artist.) Made with full family cooperation, American is candid about Hicks' L.A. burnout, drug abuse, and alcoholism, though more veiled about girlfriends who endured such behavior (none are interviewed). And his early '90s tirades about the Branch Davidian siege are tinged with Tea Party anger. He was ahead of his time in more ways than one. But take away the politics and outrage, and there's much laughter and delight here. My favorite bit is Hicks enacting the Shane shootout between Jack Palance and Elisha Cook Jr.: He's pure evil and pure innocence and purely convincing as both.

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