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Men & Chicken
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by Jay Seaver

"Funny and fraught, whether you're chicken or not."
5 stars

"Men & Chicken" is Anders Thomas Jensen's first film as director in ten years, though in that time he has been a prolific screenwriter. What makes this particular screenplay the one that gets him back in the director's chair? Well, there are some ideas that you just can't bear to give to anybody else, and some that nobody else will believe in like you will. Given that the film he made is both deeply peculiar and strangely affecting, it may be a little of both.

It starts with two brothers, Gabriel (Daid Dencik) and Elias (Mads Mikkelsen) losing their father, only to inherit a VHS tape that says that they have a different biologic father, Evilio Thanatos, who lives in an old sanitarium on the tiny Isle of Ork. Eager to learn more about their roots, they make a pilgrimage, only to find three more half-brothers - Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), Franz (Søren Malling), and Josef (Nicolas Bro) - all with the same harelips they were born with, about as bright as the fairly dim Elias, rather reluctant to let them meet their 99-year-old father.

Black comedy that comes from the interactions of difficult-to-like people has traditionally been Jensen's stock in trade, and Men & Chicken offers so much of that up that the outright slapstick absurdity might not immediately register. The early interactions of Gabriel and Elias are powerfully uncomfortable - I'm not sure whether Elias's bizarre presumption that proximity his powerful attractiveness sabotages Gabriel's relationships is buttressed or refuted by his strong regular need to masturbate - so that by the time they get to the former sanitarium they've been given for an address, the tension is so fraught that when Elias, Gregor, and Franz start whaling on each other with comically large bits of junk, the brain needs a bit of time to adjust. The first guy in the theater to laugh might get some dirty looks, but as the goofiness becomes more overt, the laughter becomes easier and flows freely, even in the middle of the grimy, kind of repulsive environment. Jensen piles on the physical comedy, but interweaves it with intellectual absurdity as Josef tries to rationally process the Bible as literature while reading it for the first time, and every shade of comedy in between.

It's a heck of a thing for the actors to pull off, but Jensen has a great cast working with him. David Dencik plays Gabriel as a nebbish whose frustration with the world around him has been honed to such a sharp point that he's going to hurt someone with it, a straight man likely to reveal himself as just as ridiculous when he snaps. Mads Mikkelsen's Elias drives him insane, and Mikkelsen seems to be having a great time playing far against type as this dumb lug with a goofy mustache, so glad to be fitting in with his new brothers that the fact that they are socially stunted lunatic doesn't really click. Those brothers are played by a very funny trio themselves - Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Nicolas Bro both capture different sorts of nervous weirdness, while Søren Malling makes Franz imperious enough to be both kind of absurd and a little bit threatening.

They're all ludicrous in their ways, and Jensen pushes them into places dark and horrible enough to shock the audience at times. What's impressive, though, is what a fine balancing act he manages with it: As much as the easy, instinctive reaction is to not want anything to do with these people, and indeed to agree with those who say that the brothers should probably be committed to some sort of sanitarium, the way he presents this clan ultimately stirs sympathy. Every one of these guys, to some degree or other, knows that he is a mess who craves love and acceptance even as they must, both individually and as a group, ultimately confront that they have been screwed up by their father in ways that no outsider can truly understand.

For a lot of films, this would be a test of empathy - can the people watching it find it in themselves to identify with these poor perverted wretches? Unlike many art-house types, Jensen appears to see his job as guiding the viewer to that position rather than challenge whether or not they're capable of it already. Succeeding in that makes "Men & Chicken" as surprisingly emotional as it is shockingly funny, even if the actual details of what's going on can make it a heck of a tough sale.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29663&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/30/16 14:05:10
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2015 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2015 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  22-Apr-2016 (NR)
  DVD: 25-Oct-2016

UK
  N/A

Australia
  22-Apr-2016
  DVD: 25-Oct-2016




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