JCVD opens like just about any crappy Jean-Claude Van Damme action film, with the Muscles From Brussels kicking the asses of a legion of paramilitary baddies. Then you notice how over the top and junky it all is, even for a contemporary Van Damme flick, with ridiculous action and badly thrown punches. Then you notice that it’s all one minutes-long continuous shot. Something goes wrong, the scene ends, and Van Damme goes over to complain to the director, but the shot hasn’t ended. In the next scene, Van Damme’s in court trying to keep custody of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s daughter (played by Saskia Flanders) but his ex-wife’s attorney is using his crappy action films against him. In short, JCVD is sort of like The Wrestler, if The Wrestler was called The Actor and Mickey Rourke’s character was a washed-up actor named Mickey Rourke.
The plot of director/co-writer Mabrouk El Mechri’s film follows Van Damme (playing himself) as he returns home to Belgium, where he’s still a local hero, not just a fading movie tough guy. He stops into a post office to wire money to his custody attorney in Los Angeles and finds himself in the middle of a hold-up turned hostage situation. He has to try to figure a way out despite the fact that he’s not Jean-Claude Van Damme, tough guy, as cops, robbers, and hostages alike see him, but just Jean-Claude Van Damme, an athletic but aging actor who plays tough guys in low-budget movies with contrived plots.
El Mechri has a lot of fun making a Van Damme film and sending up a Van Damme film at the same time, though maybe not as much fun as Van Damme himself, even if “fun” might not be the right word. He plays himself weary, melancholy, on one hand grateful for his fame and what it has brought him but on the other hand burdened by everyone thinking they know him, and by the shame of an artist who makes bad but lucrative art. Van Damme does his best to create a compelling character out of himself, one who’s both sympathetic and flawed, and he succeeds. At one point, he and El Mechri stop the movie dead so that he can deliver a soliloquy to the camera about what, exactly, it’s like to be Jean-Claude Van Damme, and you’re riveted. JCVD is funny at times, even touching, but all of El Mechri’s shot-through-weak-tea visuals, jumbled timeline tricks, and meta cleverness can’t disguise the fact that his film is, at root, little better than most of the straight-to-video junk Van Damme is shown trying to escape. At least Van Damme the actor shows he perhaps deserves the kind of second shot that Rourke got.
A less showy but more effective sort of meta transpires in writer/director Azazel Jacobs’ indie sleeper Momma’s Man. If Mom and Dad seem especially well-matched and comfortable together on screen, that’s because Jacobs cast his own mother and father, Flo and Ken Jacobs. If their characters’ archeologically cluttered lower Manhattan apartment seems too idiosyncratic and detailed to possibly be a set, that’s because it isn’t: it’s the Jacobs’ apartment, where they’ve lived and made art for decades, and where Azazel Jacobs grew up. When Matt Borem, who plays their son Mikey, rifles through his teenage loose-leaf song lyrics and comic books, it’s the director’s belongings he’s reminiscing over, and he’s doing it sitting on the director’s old bed.
The verisimilitude gives Momma’s Man an incredibly specific and vivid sense of people and place, which makes a huge difference in how well the film works. Mikey is supposed to fly back to his wife and new baby and job in California after visiting his parents in New York, but he impulsively decides to stay for another day, then another, and another. His parents are puzzled, but happy to have their only son home for a little longer. Mikey seems a little puzzled himself, but has a good time digging through his old stuff and sleeping late, taking a break from his grown-up life by burrowing back into his adolescent one. But visits with old friends show that you can’t go home again, and even if you could, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea. As his wife’s phone calls become more upset and his parents get more worried and his lies stack up, Mikey’s dilemma gets deeper and the seriousness of its underpinnings becomes plain.
Baby-faced Borem and director Jacobs perform an exquisite balancing act here in making Mikey’s retreat relatable while making no excuses for it. Indeed, Momma’s Man is a marvel of watchful balance, handling Mikey’s internal turmoil with a near-wordless grace and never leaning too hard on the funny bits or the inevitable moments of deep pathos. The result is, well, the genuine article.