Empathy is not exactly a hallmark of underground films these days, and neither is it a particularly distinctive quality in the work of one of that scene's low-watt luminaries, filmmaker Jon Moritsugu. In describing previous Moritsugu films such as Der Elvis, Terminal USA and Mod Fuck Explosion, critics invoke phrases and adjectives that cluster around punk sensibilities: tasteless, ugly, campy, abrasive, amphetamine-laced car crashes. The director's fourth feature, Fame Whore, remains all that, rest assured. But even as Moritsugu delights in confronting us with an office desk spattered with dog shit, a surprisingly empathetic current gradually seeps into the film that, far from offsetting its nasty satiric bite, actually hones it. This strain of largely genuine feeling — irony touches everything in the film — is also surprising given Fame Whore's subject and the loathsome, irritating nature of its central characters. In attacking our cultural obsession with fame — getting it, getting near it, watching it from afar — Moritsugu goes hilariously to town with three separate stories about three disparate lives.
Jody George (Peter Friedrich) is the bad boy of the tennis world, its top player and biggest ego. A loudly self-declared hetero sex machine, the heavily sponsored athlete is nevertheless outed by the press and spends most of the film conducting furious damage control and screaming homophobic slurs. Sophie (Amy Davis) is a trust-fund-supported pretender to talent who desperately fights for notoriety on a range of fronts as painter, photographer, filmmaker, fashion designer and 22 other creative occupations. As her put-upon personal assistant (Jason T. Rail) rolls his eyes, Sophie — like Madonna, she has no last name — shrilly works the phones in between bong hits. While George and Sophie are both apt representatives of the film's title, Fame Whore's counterpoint is another George, who sits as far from fame as possible. A toiler at a city dog pound, he's unrecognized and overlooked by everyone. His best friend and assistant is imaginary, a giant talking St. Bernard named Mr. Peepers. This George's crisis begins when the city threatens to send over a real person as an assistant.
As one character finds his coveted isolation threatened, the other two find themselves increasingly alone, victims of the fame they're so obsessed with. It's for the latter distasteful pair, however, that Moritsugu gets us to feel — he so swathes the dog-pound worker in pity and sentiment, it's impossible to take him seriously. This odd reversal points in some ways to Moritsugu's own precarious relationship with fame. With all its raw energy and savagery — as much the result of Moritsugu's direction as the brilliantly outrageous performances of Friedrich and Davis — Fame Whore targets not famous people but, more sharply, fame itself. And even though as a filmmaker Moritsugu is vehemently resistant to commodification, it and celebrity have nevertheless come looking for him: He's been written up in glossy mags such as Jane, Entertainment Weekly, Spin and Rolling Stone. It's no wonder, then, that while his latest film has all the old bite, there's a little worry mixed in as well.