Popovich and the Voice of the Fabled American West Gregory Popovich, Melody Melendez, Antonio Fargas. Directed by Jerry and Mike Thompson. Not rated. Opens Friday.
Local filmmakers Jerry and Mike Thompson follow up their charming 2009 feature debut Thor at the Bus Stop with the equally charming but slightly less ambitious Popovich and the Voice of the Fabled American West, a showcase for Strip headliner Gregory Popovich and his menagerie of pet performers. Funded on Kickstarter (disclosure: I was one of the backers, and I have a brief cameo) and shot in Vegas with local actors, the movie has a distinctive hometown, let’s-put-on-a-show feel, embodied by Popovich, who stars as a fictionalized version of himself.
The movie’s Popovich is a down-on-his-luck street performer living in a junkyard full of animals, who also happen to be his only friends. When his cruel neighbor reports him to the authorities for running an unauthorized animal shelter, Popovich has a limited time to raise enough money to properly license his facility, or risk losing his animal friends. It’s a setup that was already familiar back in the silent-movie era, but the Thompsons (who co-wrote the script with Popovich) use the simplicity to their advantage, creating straightforward, family-friendly entertainment that is more interested in showcasing animal antics than in telling a complex story.
The simplicity also works to Popovich’s strengths, which are physical comedy and interacting with animals, not emoting or delivering dialogue. There are echoes of classic silent comedians Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin (especially Chaplin’s 1928 comedy The Circus) in Popovich’s story, and the Thompsons do a good job balancing the slapstick and sentiment. The movie incorporates a number of routines from Popovich’s stage show, and the plot sometimes swerves awkwardly to include them, but they’re clearly the main draw.
In a way, that’s a shame, because the kind of oddball characters that the Thompsons proved so talented at creating in Thor get pushed to the margins. Mike Thompson steals every scene he’s in as a fellow street performer known as Space Mime, and he gets one pretty amazing showcase during a talent-show segment, but for the most part, the various dogs, cats and other creatures deserve billing above the human supporting cast. Given how impressive their antics are, though, it’s hard to begrudge them their moment in the spotlight.