Movie Review: “NOLA Circus” is a Big Easy bust that makes comedy look hard

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With all the money Louisiana has poured into film incentives over the past decade and a half, it’s a little shocking that so little cinema has come out of the bayou that gives us a real flavor of the place.

Most glaringly, there’s no comic equivalent of say, a “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” A poor state that is giving away several fortunes to movie makers hasn’t managed to produce a comedy that feels, sounds and tastes like New Orleans. There’s an audience for that, a crying need for it.

And for the first ten minutes or so, “NOLA Circus,” an indie Afro-centric “barbershop” comedy set around Algiers Point, makes you think, “This could BE that movie.”

Then the “circus” part kicks in, a mad collage of racists, drug dealers, stereotypes and dull writing, and the movie’s wit evaporates like a cold drink on a hot day.

There are two competing barbershops, one run by our politically-active, Rosa Parks-worshiping, Afro-rocking narrator, Will (Martin Bats Bradford of “Free State of Jones”). Marvin’s, across the street, is run by the disreputable Marvin the Scissors (Vas Blackwood) and his two physically distinct brothers, Happy the Big Ears and Con the Anaconda.

Will quotes Martin Luther King Jr., thinks of his hair as a political statement and is popular because of it. Even singer Eryka Badu is a fan.

Marvin? He collects snatches of hair, and not from “up there.” Good thing his drug-dealing girlfriend (Kamille McCuin) isn’t wise to that — yet.

 

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But Will is playing with fire, too, and not just with the politics. (The film’s opening scene has a trio of high-voiced Klansmen raiding his shop and threatening him.) Will is sneaking around with the vivacious Nola (Jessica Morali). And the only way he avoids a brutal beating from her over-protective, white-haired psychotic brother Denzel (Reginal Varice) is to put him off the scent.

Telling Denzel he thinks Nola is sleeping around with a pizza delivery guy gets every Italian-surnamed pie-maker in the parish a beating. Giuseppe (Ricky Wayne) isn’t standing for that. In a racist tirade for his fellow Italians, he screams for the blood of Denzel. And that can mean only one thing. Call the family’s “made man.”

“Get Enzo!”

Writer-director Luc Annest throws potent street drugs, random comic nudity, two women dressing as Playboy bunnies robbing/kidnapping the city’s richest and whitest and dueling stammerers at us.

Yeah, he’s seen every Spike Lee movie ever made, starting with Spike’s debut, “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads.” The thing is, Annest didn’t discover what made the funniest ones work.

Bradford makes a likable scoundrel, but Annest abandons his most interesting character for long interludes — often violent — involving drug deals, peripheral character comic melodramatics and the like. Will is the cause of all this mayhem, and while his comeuppance is coming, we’re treated to some pretty nasty Italian stereotypes and some generally unfunny African American ones.

Annest fills the screen with printed explanations of this street drug or that haircut or, um, “yoga.” He delivers a wedding, an opera audition and a Kevin Smith-worthy exploration of the relative lengths of tongues and penises.

Some moments might make you smirk. But there’s little that makes you laugh. Denzel’s unwarranted beatdowns are too severe, Nola herself is a short-skirted blank slate and Will is seriously under-developed as a character in the process.

“Barbershop” comedies are ensemble pieces, so this could have worked, in spite of all that. But the one-liners, the situations and the buffoonish caricature-characters just aren’t there, comedically. As for “flavor,” Annest whiffs on that quite thoroughly. Showing a New Orleans street band, with natural sound, in one scene in which he dubs in generic soul music betrays a lack of effort to land a public domain jazz tune, or sloppy inattention to detail.

And there’s one big thing any aspiring filmmaker should figure out in studying movies set within the African American community, aimed primarily at that audience. Every such film with a pun in the title (NOLA is both a character, and an abbreviation for New Orleans, Louisiana), from “Jason’s Lyric” to “Just Wright,” just sucks.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, with gun violence, beatings, nudity, profanity, drug humor

Cast: Martin Bats Bradford, Jessica Morali, Vas Blackwood, Kamille, McCuin, Ricky Wayne, Lucius Baston, Dave Davis

Credits: Written and directed by Luc Annest. An XLRator release.

Running time: 1:29

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