'Fast, Cheap,' terrific Review: Errol Morris' new documentary finds the links in the lives of four men who would seem to have nothing in common.

November 28, 1997|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Happily, "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" does not live up to its title. Luxuriously filmed with an unerring eye for the telling detail and juxtaposition, this fifth documentary by Errol Morris is a masterwork of the director's gift for portraiture.

As he did in such classics as "Vernon, Florida," "Gates of Heaven" and "The Thin Blue Line," Morris illuminates the lives of his subjects with a bemused affection that veers toward worship as their obsessions come into focus.

Morris' most structurally complex work to date, "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" is at once a tender exploration of human nature and a celebration of Americana at its most gaudy and eccentric.

The film intertwines the stories of four men, each obsessed with something to do with animals: Insect specialist Ray Mendez studies naked mole rats -- hairless underground creatures that, although mammals, live like insects. Rodney Brooks, a robot scientist at MIT, builds machines that mimic human behavior and happen to look an awful lot like insects themselves. George Mendonca lovingly tends the topiary garden of a wealthy Rhode Island woman, crafting giraffes, bears and elephants out of privet with his precious hand-operated shears. Dave Hoover, a wild animal trainer with Clyde Beatty's traveling circus, expounds on the cardinal goal of his charges, which is, he says, to "eat the guy in the white pants."

Morris has managed to elicit highly absorbing and often very moving observations from these four extraordinary men, and he deftly draws out the synchronies that link their stories.

In addition to exploiting the uncanny way his subjects overlap (for example, Mendez compares his mole rats to robots), Morris cleverly juxtaposes the men's words and images to create another layer of meaning entirely. We see a shot of Mendonca's hearing aid while he talks about the complexities of carving an animal ear; while Mendez holds forth on humans' need "to find themselves in another social animal," circus performers curtsy with their ponies.

A great deal of the gently surreal mood that gives "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" its magic is created by the redoubtable cinematographer Robert Richardson, the same photographer who has given Oliver Stone's work its vibrant textural edge. Here, he works with all manner of film stocks, inventive lighting and his extraordinary gift for composition to create an impressionistic canvas as varied and complex as the men themselves.

Some of Richardson's finest work is his filming of Mendonca's garden menagerie, which he enchants with soft Monet colors and dreamy, rainy night scenes. Scenes of the circus pop out in bold primary brush strokes, their energy belied by the carnival workers who stare off into the middle distance.

Of course, the most memorable magic-makers in Morris' film are the four subjects, whose enthusiasms are delightfully contagious, even Mendez's passion for mole rats. Emerging as a ghostly fifth star of the film, Clyde Beatty appears in his old films, reminding the audience of the folly and danger of human hegemony over the natural world.

"Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" (the title refers to a paper Brooks wrote about using robots to explore Mars) is about many things, including the human need to connect (poignantly brought home during a birthday party in an MIT lab), the impulse to project our fears and desires onto nature and the need to invest life with purpose.

If Morris' own purpose is to portray his subjects as showmen, artists and visionaries in their own right, he's accomplished his goal beautifully.

'Fast, Cheap & Out of Control'

Directed by Errol Morris

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Rated PG (mild thematic elements)

Sun score: ****

Pub Date: 11/28/97

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