One of the most welcome surprises of WorldFest is the premiere of Joe's Rotten World, a terrific comedy from Los Angeles-based writer/director Richard LaBrie, which comes on like A Confederacy of Dunces as directed by Albert Brooks and scripted by Tom Robbins. The premise is too complicated and bizarre to detail here, but a few key details should tell you what kind of movie you're in for. Joe Seymore (Ramsay Midwood) is a doctoral student who's steadily losing his grip on sanity. For the past few years, he's been so obsessed with completing his 3,000-page dissertation on the collapse of America that he's turned into a pop-eyed, hostile hermit who torments his long-suffering wife, Annie (Jessica Hecht), and everybody else he knows with endless, angry, scatological harangues about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Annie decides she can't take it anymore, packs her things and heads out into the desert, where she falls in with a fertility cult comprising 13 very pregnant women, a sexually insatiable patriarch and his chief henchman, who has a large, pointy-tipped firecracker permanently impaled in his skull. (He's an adaptable guy, though -- aside from having to wear the same hat his whole life and give up smoking, he seems none the worse for wear.) Meanwhile, back in the semi-real world, Joe's two best buddies, fellow doctoral students Bobby (Ricky Dean Logan) and Curtis (Blair Shannon) try to bring their disturbed pal back to sanity. Their task isn't easy: Joe recently got stung by a gigantic, unclassified wasplike bug, and the pustulant wound on his chest and the insect venom coursing through his bloodstream have made him prone to sudden bouts of clairvoyance and time travel.
If filmmaker LaBrie's grip on this loony-bin material were anything less than masterful -- and if his cast were anything less than brilliant -- Joe's Rotten World would seem arch, precious and pointless. But he and his superb actors manage to imbue even the most bizarre characters with warmth and humanity. And amid all the visual, temporal and cultural shenanigans (including a pill-addiction subplot, numerous jokes about smelly underwear, profane apocalyptic rants, geodesic domes and a cameo appearance by Albert Einstein), the film somehow manages to become a truly touching love story. The picture's ultimate message is that, yes, the world is headed for hell in an ox-cart, but if you have faith in your ability to love and be loved, life ain't all that bad. Joe's Rotten World is a treasure.
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-- Matt Zoller Seitz