Arts & Events

Cheatin': A Psychedelic, Animated Romance with a European Flavor
Opens April 17 at the Elmwood Cinema and San Francisco's Roxie Theater

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Monday April 20, 2015 - 02:51:00 PM

Bill Plympton is not your average animator. Most feature animations these days either involve two-dimensional comic art or faux 3D effects. Plympton is old-school. For his first full-length animation, The Tune (1992), Plympton (like the Walt Disney animators before him) manually inked and colored 30,000 individual sheets of celluloid ("cels") that were then painstakingly photographed one after another to produce the illusion of motion.

But Plympton goes even further then Disney did. He doesn't just animate two-dimensional cartoon figures decked out in primary colors. Plympton animates actual drawings—each frame a sophisticated, nuanced portrait in which the characters are rendered in great detail, including intricately crosshatched shadings of face and form. 

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Cheatin' is Plympton's ninth feature film and it comes bedecked with a clutch of film festival awards. (Plympton, who is a two-time Oscar nominee, has also racked up 33 prize-winning short films along with television gigs, music videos and commercial jobs for clients ranging from United Airlines to Geico). 

If you go to see Cheatin' (and I recommend that you do), prepare to see a strange and misshaped world refracted through Plympton's wildly wacky, distorted lens. The alternative universe of Plymptonville is populated by bucktoothed yahoos, muscle-bound pinheads and bodacious-bosomed bimbos—all inflated and twisted into bizarre caricatures of humanity. 

Clearly, a film called Cheatin' would feature a couple of lovers. In this case, we are called to witness the story of Jake and Ella. 

Jake is a gas station pump-jockey who has the neck of the horse, a nose that resembles a bicep, and a face that looks like what you would get if you swapped Botox shots for steroid injections. Jake's arms suffer from Popeye Syndrome—They bulge out at opposite ends of his scrawny elbows like a string of sausages. He's got a manly chest—with pecs of steel—and a rack of abs—confined to an abdomen as thin as a wasp's waist. 

The ladies in Jake's world can't keep their eyes (or hands) off the muscular lug. They are constantly writing their names and phone numbers on little scraps of paper that they slip into his pocket while he's pumping gas into their tanks. (The sexual symbolism in Cheatin' is abiding and overt.) 

Ella is also an eyeful. With her thin waist, long legs, flirty hips, green eyes and strong chin, she's catnip to the men in town (a town that seems strangely devoid of women). And Ella's got a pair of swollen, red lips that are so perfectly puckered they become a character-defining asset. All Ella has to do is walk down the street, her face buried in a book, and every man's eyes are turned on, tuned in and bugging out, following her every move. 

Ella and Jake cross paths in an amusement park when their bumper cars collide. Ella is instantly smitten. Jake's fall comes later after Ella is thrown from her bumper car and faces imminent electrocution from a spreading tide of spilled coffee. (Say what?) Yep, there is an extended—and wildly inventive—rescue scene that involves a set-up that's worthy of stunt from the Mission Impossible franchise. 

When the electricity finally sparks between these two, watch out. Fair warning, kids: In Plympton's Plymptoons, his animated avatars have bodies and they are no strangers to lust. They strip off their clothes, jump into bed, and hump the devil out of those bedsprings. 

The bumper car "meet cute" takes care of "boy meets girl" part of the RomCom equation. Next comes the plot device that rips the romance apart. Jake mistakenly doubts Ella's faithfulness. Ella is unaware of Jake's suspicions until it is too late. There is a rift. Ella is bereft. Jake splits and begins to drown his sorrows in an endless stretch of beddings at the local EZ Motel. 

Ella, in turn, feels the sting of betrayal and plots her revenge. When a hired assassin plan collapses in a series of pratfalls, Ella turns to a techno-magic solution. This comes in the form of a carnival magician and his sometimes misbehaving transmogrifier—a machine capable of turning Ella into each of the vamps and tramps who have been beating a path to Jake's motel room door. 

Eventually these two misguided innocents will be reunited and will reestablish their love in an even more secure state Bedded Bliss. 

Cheatin' boasts a worldly European sensibility. At the same time, it is both a bravura artistic performance and an erotic watershed for the animated genre. 

The unfolding story of the beautifully rendered characters in Plympton's hallucinogenic universe also benefits from a terrific soundtrack. (Did I mention that no words are spoken in this film? While there are lots of emotional exchanges, there are no actual conversations—only exclamations and murmurs, giggles and grunts.) The story bobs along on a sonic tide of music, most of it composed and performed by the multi-talented Nicole Renaud. (One exception: during Ella and Jake's marvelously staged courtship dance, Jake bursts into a rendition of Vesti La Giubba and winds up sounding a lot like Enrico Caruso.) 

Above all, Cheatin' is a singular visual accomplishment—an entertaining immersion that grabs your feet from below the surface and drags you under. Be prepared to hold your breath. 

For more on the movie, see: