Steve Anderson's feature-length documentary Fuck sports an impressive, wildly diverse cast: Thanks to the magic of editing, Pat Boone appears alongside Chuck D and Billy Connolly, and Sam Donaldson, Janeane Garofalo, Bill Maher, Miss Manners and Ron Jeremy -- among copious others -- also make appearances. All are on hand, presumably, because they speak from a position of authority on the film's title word. In addition to the actors, newsmen, comics, porn stars and politics, the film also features a handful of "cunning linguists," who provide periodic infusions of what passes for academic commentary. Token academics aside, however, the film is little more than a flimsy excuse -- an entertaining excuse, mind you, but an excuse nevertheless -- to shout "FUCK!" in a crowded movie theater, and to mock the conservatives Anderson knows won't see his movie.
Less focused than its title and press would have us believe, Fuck is a superficial examination of obscenity in America. It revolves around the word in question, but branches out generously into subjects like FCC regulation, the impact of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, and the horror of Janet Jackson's dreaded right boob. Most of the movie is made up of sound-bite friendly talking heads interviews which, because they take place against a black background, can create the weak illusion that all the subjects are in the same room. Thus, Anderson can cleverly edit his interviews with Miss Manners and Ron Jeremy into one another, vaguely suggesting at one point that she's been driven from the room by the power of his dirty words. (Nothing of the sort happened, of course, but it's always fun to mock Miss Manners, right? And oh, that naughty Ron Jeremy!)
Intercut with the interview segments are cartoon by Oscar-nominated animator and cartoonist Bill Plympton, illustrating things like the various grammatical uses of the word "fuck" (How no one thought to compare it to "smurfy" over the film's achingly long 93 minutes is a mystery to me.) and punching up otherwise less-jazzy segments. The presence of Plympton's work, impressive as it is, gives a real indication of Fuck's main goal: Anderson wants his film to titilate and entertain first, with education and enlightenment a very distant second. The director seems much more interested in getting a good quote out of Hunter S. Thompson than he is in teaching the audience about his ostensible subject; more interested in feeding liberal rage with the injustice of fining Bono for using "fuck" as an adjective on TV than really examining the history of the word in the media. And, really, it's hard to blame Anderson for aiming squarely at the obvious -- audiences are more like to spend their money on a movie that features Biohazard's Evan Seinfeld and his porn star wife talking about their preferred sex positions than one offering a thoughtful, considered analysis of the word "fuck" in popular culture.
What's frustrating, though, is that the thoughtful movie is there, too, waiting in the wings. Garofalo, Donaldson, Chuck D, Alanis Morisette, Kevin Smith and Ben Bradlee and all have measured, interesting things to say not only about "fuck," but also freedom of speech, obscenity and censorship in this country. Unfortunately, we only hear from them in fits and starts. The great majority of screen time is given over to flashier, more incendiary figures like Ice-T, porn stars and Steven Bochco, as well as those who can be presented as patently absurd (Boone, Alan Keyes, Janet LaRue). In this context, at least, a good sound bite featuring the word "fuck" (preferably in a sexual context) is much better than anything offering thought or any degree of complexity.
That said, however, there's one person in the film who almost singlehandedly makes the film enlightening and enjoyable: Scottish comedian Billy Connolly is so filled with life, intelligence and passion that it's impossible to not to be riveted every time he's on screen. Though he's not onscreen anywhere near enough, Connolly is simultaneously thoughtful and glib; brilliant and gleefully lewd. No matter what country you're in, he says, if you look at someone and say "You! FUCK OFF!" they know exactly what you mean. Furthermore, Connolly claims, the word is so perfectly expressive that "there is no English equivalent" -- it's utterly undefinable and untranslatable. You can see in his eyes when he's suddenly realized where the latest outrageous riff is going and can hardly wait to take us there; in his scenes are found the joy and sincerity that's sorely lacking from most of the film.
For a film that aspires to such exuberance, Fuck is, at its core, profoundly depressing. Though they are present less to provide balance than as targets of ridicule, the far-right figures in the movie -- from Pat Boone to Alan Keyes to Janet LaRue -- have worldviews diametrically opposed to those held by the film's likely audience. And, while it's fun to laugh when Pat Boone advocates using his last name as a replacement curse word (Ice-T, at least, is onboard with the plan), the deeply conservative ideas he and others on his side of the political spectrum enunciate are merely reminders of how deep the divide in this country truly is. Eventually, Fuck becomes simply a microcosm of almost every moral conflict at work in the U.S.: Each side spits out the cliches which they already believe, both sides assume the other is made up entirely of fools, and nothing changes.