Finders Keepers (2015)

An unusual confrontation.

An unusual confrontation.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) John Wood, Shannon Whisnant, Peg Wood, Lisa Whisnant. Directed by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. In this case, they’d be absolutely right. I can’t imagine anyone no matter how imaginative they are could make this story up.

Shannon Whisnant, a North Carolina junk dealer, had just purchased the contents of an auctioned storage unit. In that storage unit was a barbecue smoker, which was the prize item he had seen in the unit when he bought it. He put all his new items into his truck and drove it home, wheeled the smoker into his front yard and opened it – and just about had a heart attack.

In the smoker was the mummified remains of a human leg. Whisnant of course did the right thing – he notified the police who confiscated the leg as evidence and having nowhere to store it, left it with the local funeral home. Eventually they tracked down the owner of the storage unit who had defaulted on his monthly rental fee; John Wood.

Once the scion of a well-to-do family in Maiden, North Carolina, he’d fallen on hard times. But not hard enough to make him a killer – no, the leg was his. He’d lost it in a plane crash in which his father had lost his life. He’d asked for the leg back from the hospital once it had been amputated, intending to create a memorial to his father using the skeletal remains of his own leg but couldn’t find anyone to remove the flesh from the limb. He’d thrown it in the smoker and forgotten about it.

He wanted the leg back, however, still intending to eventually create that monument. However, Shannon wasn’t willing to give it back. After all, he’d bought and paid for the contents of the storage unit, including the smoker – and including the leg that was in the smoker. You wouldn’t ask for the grill back from the smoker after all; he’d paid for it fair and square.

So why would Whisnant want a human leg? Fame, pure and simple. He saw it as an opportunity to put his name on the map. At first he saw it as kind of a tourist attraction and being a fair man, he discussed going in with Wood on the deal Wood balked and the two geared up for a fight in the courtroom.

Some of you may remember the story when it hit all the tabloids a few years ago, but maybe you didn’t hear the whole story; how Wood had become addicted to painkillers while recuperating from his amputation, how he graduated to harder drugs, how he had been thrown out by his mother Peg recognizing that she was enabling his decline towards an overdose; how he had become homeless and alone.

Nor may you have heard how Whisnant had grown up with an emotionally and physically abusive father, how he had tried to gain his dad’s approval and never gotten it. How he was always a decent sort whose only aim was to make people happy around him.

This peculiar “only in the South” might induce giggles from some. They may look at these two men as ignorant hillbilly sorts that confirm the stereotype of Southern rednecks. And yeah, there are a few things here that head down that trail a bit, but as the movie unspools, you begin to see beyond the ridiculous and into the human story that is at the heart of the matter.

Both Wood and Whisnant are wounded human beings, and maybe they’re not likely to be employed by NASA anytime soon, but they are no less worthy of respect and empathy. These are both men who have gone through hard times; Wood, who was in attendance at the opening night screening at the Enzian, described Whisnant as “the yin to my yang.” They aren’t friends, not by any stretch of the imagination; Whisnant, who always saw Wood as uppity, described him as being “born with a silver crack pipe in his mouth.” They are inevitably linked by Wood’s leg and likely always will be. Maybe there is some comfort to be had in that.

One thing that is admirable is that as the movie goes on, we see Wood’s recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. An appearance on the Judge Mathis show (which resulted in Wood keeping the leg but having to pay Whisnant $5,000 for it) led to Wood receiving treatment at one of the nation’s premiere rehab centers. Since them, Wood has been sober and drug-free for nearly eight years and has also since gotten married. As important, Wood has gained wisdom; he has reconciled with his family and is slowly working to building back their trust after years of breaking their hearts. He recognizes that it is a slow and ongoing process but worth his effort. He understands what is important now and has put much of the sickness that led to his drug addiction behind him.

That’s a big deal; not all of us have the will to make that kind of turn-around and you have to respect the story of someone who has. Still, you will probably giggle fairly regularly, as Wood jokes about his leg, or Whisnant consistently mistakes “perspire” for “transpire.” But this is, as Peg Wood puts it in the movie, a funny story with its roots in tragedy. Fortunately, it’s a tragedy that looks like it will have a happy ending.

REASONS TO GO: Takes an unexpected turn. Oddball enough to keep your interest.
REASONS TO STAY: The pictures of the leg may be too stomach-turning for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: Some gruesome images, drug references and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whisnant once appeared on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: VOD (Check your local cable/satellite provider), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu
NEXT: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials


The Great Buck Howard

The Great Buck Howard

Colin Hanks and Emily Blunt are blissfully ignorant that Steve Zahn just grabbed John Malkovich's privates.

(2008) Comedy (Magnolia) John Malkovich, Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt, Ricky Jay, Tom Hanks, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne, Debra Munk, Wallace Langham, Adam Scott, George Takei. Directed by Sean McGinley

Show biz is heroin. It gets into the system and stays there, mercilessly demanding the entire attention of the poor sap who gets addicted to it, until there is nothing left but a chewed-out husk. Once in awhile, it brings the seductive allure of success and acclaim, but more often than not, disappointment and obscurity.

Buck Howard (Malkovich) is a mentalist (don’t call him a magician unless you want to be chewed out and humiliated) who has 61 appearances on the Tonight Show – the real one, the one with Johnny Carson hosting, not the one with that Leno fellow. However, since his heyday Buck has fallen on hard times, taking his act to smaller and less glamorous venues, but with the never-say-die attitude of a true show biz trooper, cries out in every Podunk Berg he plies his trade in, “I love this town!!” followed by “I love you people!” Both are about as heartfelt as a 10-year-old saying he didn’t eat the cookies.

Howard is in need of a new road manager, and he gets one in the form of Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), who has left law school in search of something more meaningful, much to the dismay of his dad (Tom Hanks, Colin’s real-life pa). Troy quickly discovers that Buck’s unctuous charm is a mask that hides a bitter man who refuses to admit that his best days are behind him, yet is deeply afraid that it is so. He resolutely soldiers on, a relic in a time of extreme street magic and wacky comic magicians, wearing a tux and warbling “What the World Needs Now” in a say-singing manner at the piano. Once upon a time he would have felt right at home with Steve and Edie. Hell, maybe he did.

Buck realizes he needs to jump-start his career and decides to take on a stunt guaranteed to get attention; but at the moment of his triumph, it all comes crumbling down when the reporters in attendance leave to get on a bigger story – a minor traffic accident involving Jerry Springer.

But such is the netherworld that the has-been exists in, a purgatory of missed opportunities and that oh-so-close taste of the brass ring that is never completely swallowed. Yet Buck becomes hip in spite of himself and when a Vegas show opens up for him, the show biz Gods have an even crueler fate in store for him.

McGinley based the movie on his own experiences as road manager for the Amazing Kreskin years ago. Hopefully, Kreskin was nicer than Buck is; Malkovich plays him as a diva with anger management issues, fixing his minions with withering glares and outbursts of vitriol that would do Gordon Ramsay proud.

The younger Hanks goes for a kind of hangdog performance, making Troy both victim and enabler. His romance with publicist Valerie (Brennan) is sad and ultimately distracting, but it is his relationship with Buck that centers the movie. While you get the sense that Troy is meant for bigger and better things, Buck also senses it and in a sense, envies him – and in the end finds his own vicarious success through Troy.

The movie’s pacing is somewhat deliberate; those who like their jokes rapid-fire may find this annoying. For my part, I found it refreshing that the filmmakers chose to take their time and establish atmosphere and characters, allowing audiences access to the movie’s heart. To my way of thinking, that’s much more gratifying than being assaulted by one gag after another.

This is not glamorous in the least; it’s about the vast majority of those who go into show biz with some dream of success and wind up sorely disappointed. In Buck’s case, that success was there for awhile but like a fickle lover, moved on to the next flavor of the week, leaving Buck to wallow in memory trying to recapture something that never can be truly kept.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie has a real sense of fun and looks at a less glamorous side of the business. Hanks and Malkovich make a good team.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie takes it’s time which may not sit well with audiences used to much faster-paced comedies.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some language issues, as well as a sexual and drug reference or two, but by and large acceptable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buck is depicted as appearing on MTV’s TRL show, which had been canceled between the time the movie was filmed and when it was released.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a small featurette on the Amazing Kreskin whose real-life exploits were the loose inspiration for Buck.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $900K on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.