“Ghostbox Cowboy” is a trippy culture-clash comedy, an “innocent abroad” tale of an American rube out of his depth in the new Wild West, the free-for-all that counts as a marketplace in modern day China.
It’s willfully, defiantly cryptic and pretty much impossible to cozy up to, but writer-director John Maringouin (“Big River Man”) calls to mind the early deadpan fish-out-of-water films of Jim Jarmusch (“Mystery Train”) and similar ’80s indie roadtrip fare — “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” is the most obvious analog I can think of.
Not that “Ghostbox” makes as much sense as any of those hallucinogenic antecedents. Not in the least.
Our story opens at a Love’s Interstate service station in “The American Blank Region” where a 50ish doofus (David Zellner of “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter”) wanders the aisles in age-inappropriate slacker-wear and notices that every useless toy and tchotchke he picks up has “Made in China” on its label.
The next scene, he’s in China, a tall Texan with no accent or boots, but a ten gallon hat that announces his presence to an entire country of hustlers, one-person manufacturing firms, entrepreneurs and rule-benders, every one of them asserting China is “open for business.”
He is Jimmy Van Horn of Van Horn Global, a title tells us. And he has an idea, a dream and a “prototype.” Ghostr is a gadget to talk with the dead, a “trans-dimensional communication device.” He is sure he can pitch this, get investors, get the Ghostr made on the cheap and make his mark in the world and his fortune.
“Everyone has a dead grandmother they want to communicate with,” is his pitch.
The Specialist (that’s the name he goes by in the credits, too) is an American ex-pat too much of a “genius” to make it in America, ready to walk Jimmy through the naked fever dream of Chinese capitalism.
Specialist speaks Chinese — badly and arrogantly. If he knew what the natives — taxi drivers and others, were saying about him…
He shows Jimmy this world of hustlers, a massive flea-market looking complex where “each little stand is a factory, every floor has about 10,000 factories. and there’s 50 floors.”
He will introduce Jimmy to the shakers and movers who puts such “factories” to work making 9volt lightbox junk like Ghostr.
A running gag — every Chinese person Jimmy meets is rude, starting with the indulgently contemptuous young Chinese-Americans who have brought their trust funds to the land of their forefathers to make their fortunes. They’ve set up shop in the Next Big Thing Economy, and being from Cleveland, are prone to correcting Jimmy’s idiotic misuse of American colloquialisms.
“These will sell like THE hotcakes” is his pitch, they try not to roll their eyes as he Texas-splains what “hotcakes” are — to guys from Cleveland who know the expression is “sell like hotcakes.”
The sea of middlemen and go betweens Jimmy must navigate includes “Swamp Donkeys,” investors with more money than common sense. Aged hippie Bob Grainger (Robert Longstreet of “Sorry to Bother You”) will help with that. Bob is CEO of FreeDentures.com, false teeth that come with wifi receivers allowing your mouth to broadcast advertising to you — the cost of “free dentures.”
“I’m gonna fast-track you in there.,” the manic, seemingly-stoned 68 year old (“I LOOK 40!”) insists. “You’re going to meet the most influential 12 year old millionaires in China!”
Bob’s rules for the China trade? “Be young and interesting. And don’t fall in love with a beautiful hooker.”
Bob, Specialist and the Chinese business people they hook Jimmy up with drink and snort and party and take meetings and share bromides that they must have read on those framed posters they sell in airline magazines.
“The usefulness of a window is not in the frame, but in the empty space that lets the light through.”
“FEAR has two meanings. Forget Everything And Run, or Face Everything And Rise.”
Jimmy has tied his fate to irate Chinese nags and thieves (stealing his idea is Job One) and to clumsy American ex-pats who launch into stoner talking jags about Chinese gerbils slaughtering eagles and spontaneously combusting mellons.
Every idea is prime investment property — bathtub gargoyles? Free Dentures? Ghostr?
“You can’t walk down the street here and not make money,” The Specialist insists. Meanwhile, the Chinese are muttering “American devils” and “idiot” at them and not even covering their mouths when they do.
“Why don’t you speak Chinese?”
Jimmy is doomed to leave one Zombieland (“America is DEAD.”) for another, the “Blank Space” of Inner Mongolia, where his journey takes him to one of those vast, fraudulent Chinese megacities, never quite finished, with nobody living there.
“Prepare to be civilized,” a loudspeaker blares.
But don’t expect to be entertained. Not a lot, anyway. Maringouin fills the screen with not quite random images of desolation, loneliness, despair and capitalism run amok.
Jimmy’s journey is meandering and seemingly largely in his own mind, even as reality sets in — he loses his money — and he finds himself playing the part of “The American Investor” in staged photos of groundbreakings, meetings with Chinese investors who’d feel more confident if an it just looks like an American is involved.
I was fascinated, but I can’t say I liked “Ghostbox Cowboy” as much as I enjoyed the films it seems inspired by. As with the Ghostr, it’s not the production of the product (“I don’t care about quality.”) that is taken seriously, but the idea.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: David Zellner, Tax Ninja, The Specialist, J.R. Cazet, Robert Longstreet, Nan Lin
Credits: Written and directed by John Maringouin. A Dark Star Pictures release.
Running Time: 1:48