In “Nuts!,” viewers are introduced to John Brinkley, who in the 1920s and 1930s became an American celebrity when he purported to cure impotence with the implantation of goat testicles alongside human ones.
A zany mix of enterprise, flimflammery and self-promotion at their most brazen, Brinkley’s improbable career is a story too good to check, and filmmaker Penny Lane exploits it with playful abandon in a documentary that finds easy point-and-laugh value in its self-mythologizing subject (and his Javert-like pursuer from the American Medical Association).
Lane creates a seductive collage of stock footage and rough-hewn animation to revisit Brinkley’s rise and fall, including some talking-head interviews with historians and biographers, and uses voice-over narration from the aggrandizing biography that Brinkley himself commissioned. What begins as an amusing illustrated meditation on celebrity, credulity and modern communications technology builds to a whopper of a climax when Lane cannily turns the tables on the audience and systematically dismantles much of the story she’s been so giddily spinning.
The effect is sobering, and viewers can’t help but reflect on how our need to believe informs our political and media discourse today. Still, Lane’s cheeky invocation of postmodern indeterminacy and the film’s overall tone of winking ridicule begin to feel glib and slightly superficial. “Nuts!” is an intriguing, if patronizing, curio from the cabinet of American arcana, a geegaw from the collective attic that, when dusted off, looks grotesquely funny in the light of today. We wonder how anyone could buy it. Just imagine what, one day, they’ll say about us.
Unrated. At AFI Silver. Contains mature thematic material. 79 minutes.