Like Boogie Nights before it, the 2019 Sundance Film Festival feature Mope takes a decidedly murky look at the adult film industry. In its efforts to examine a harrowing true story, writer/director Lucas Heyne bites off more than he can chew in a shallow condemnation of the industry’s crooked standards.
Mope follows Steve Driver (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and Tom Dong (Kelly Syr), two aspiring adult film stars who befriend each other while working as mopes (people forced to do the most heinous/bottom-of-the-barrel acts in the industry). Instead of living their dream life, the two are degraded by their harsh roles, pushing their friendship and sanity to its breaking point.
Elevating the material to the furthest extent, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Kelly Syr dedicate themselves with reckless abandon to their distinct roles. Stewart-Jarrett displays a raw enthusiasm that morphs into volatile mania after enduring extensive abuse, doing his best to play the character’s wild mood swings with a sense of humanity. Kelly Syr has an easy-going affable presence on screen, developing a compelling makeshift friendship between Steve and Tom while keeping the narrative from completely sinking.
Outside of its core talents, Mope does little right. Heyne’s script presents a promising objective with its attempts to portray the industry’s dehumanizing standards, including the toxic masculinity and casual cruelty present in each production (women and minorities are treated as mere objects). These negative behaviors berate audiences throughout, yet Heyne’s simplistically presents these conditions without a thematic bite. The lack of depth becomes problematic in the film’s treatment of mental illness, with Steve’s spiraling mindset transforming him into a deranged wild card without an ounce of humanity. Steve isn’t alone though, as every character is exploitatively conveyed as fame-obsessed simpletons not worthy of the audience’s empathy.
Heyne’s takes a substantial risk in his tonal hybrid approach, mixing the hard-hitting realities of the true story while implementing a sense of humor involving the down-on-their-luck protagonists (similar to Pain and Gain and The Disaster Artist). This delicate blend lacks deft craftsmanship to thread the needle, with Heyne’s shaky filmmaking style being unpolished and unpleasant to look at. The tone never feels as cohesive as it should, often contradicting its thematic subtext with attempts to find humor in the industry’s broken standards. Add in a heaping of trashy moments played for mere shock value (actual footage of a person’s death is inexplicably displayed), Mope feels just as mean-spirited as the industry it attempts to depict.
Conceptual ingenuity meets lackluster execution in Mope, a project too simplistic and tone-deaf to portray the adult film industry’s lingering injustices.
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