Judge Adam Arseneau invented the Rusty Trombone. No, wait.
Frozen entrée collectors? Christian rockers?…Are you dorks serious?
One of the rarest pleasures of reviewing DVDs is being sent small independent films for review that otherwise would never cross your field of vision. Case in point: Never Been Thawed, a small-budget mockumentary low on production values and acting experience, but surprisingly high on laughs.
The film broke early ground via Netflix, which climbed on board early and made Never Been Thawed one of the first hand-picked independent films to be distributed exclusively via mail-order rental. With it now freely available on DVD, let's take this meal for a spin in the microwave …
Facts of the Case
Shawn (Sean Anders, also the writer/director) is the leader of the Mesa Frozen Entree Enthusiasts Club, a group of fanatical and obscure frozen entree meal collectors who gather to share in their loved hobby. Its members are from all walks of life, sharing tips about preserving meals in "never been thawed" state, or NBT.
Shawn's fortunes are less than good: he lost his girl, his small apartment is full of overclocked refrigerators and freezers, and his metal band is going nowhere…until Shawn decides to tap into another genre musical scene—Christian rock. Reforming the band with God-centric lyrics, "The Christers" take off like a rocket.
Al, the bass player, is less enthused about his band's new change in direction. He also belongs to the entree club, but primarily to make time with Shelly, an abstinence hotline counselor for whom he harbors a secret crush. Shelly on the other hand, despite being totally devoted to post-marital fidelity, finds Shawn to be dreamy…
Never Been Thawed is what happens when Kevin Smith wannabes set out to make a Christopher Guest mockumentary. This is no insult to either the imitated or the imitatee, because the fusing of radical styles—crude and subtle—works surprisingly well. Lampooning on the backside of the lumbering right-winged Christian behemoth movement, Never Been Thawed holds on for dear life and takes viewers on a hilarious, sarcastic, and over-the-top look into obsessive compulsion taken to extreme lengths. And the frozen entrée collecting thing may be a cinematic first.
The first few minutes feel lame, almost excessively so, because it takes time before we are invited into the joke. Once the viewer fully understands the lengths these filmmakers have gone to parody their faux-subjects of choice, the film's doors into hilarity open up. Scathingly dismissive of right-winged Christian ideology, the film tears asunder pro-life groups, abstinence-only teachings, fundamentalist intolerance and rigidity, homophobia—you name it, it gets ripped a new one.
In reality, there are two films existing simultaneously in Never Been Thawed. The first is a subtle Best in Show-esque mockumentary on fringe collectors of frozen entrée meals, a bizarre and totally irreverent sub-genre of fanaticism that I have no doubt actually exists somewhere in the world. People, after all, will collect anything. The second film is the foul-mouthed Dogma-esque Christian-bashing film about a deliciously amoral punk rock band which, tired of being ignored by record labels, metamorphoses into a Christian punk band, cleans up its sinful lyrics, and immediately finds the fanatical (and insane) fan base it long desired. Both have their merits, but the subtle nuances and quirky irreverence of the entrée storyline do not always harmonize with the brash filth and blasphemous hilarity of the second. A romantic comedy story arc ties both storylines and characters together, but not very well.
For an unknown group of actors and a small, independent production, Never Been Thawed is surprisingly funny and downright savage in its satirical disseminations. From gay firefighters who pick through the wreckage of burned homes for collectible mementos to add to their collection to the obsessed entrée collector who nicknames his gigantic industrial fridges "Goose" and "Mav," Never Been Thawed is laden with pop-culture digs and daggers, and is especially crushing towards the religious right. Between the satirical-product placement, like the uber-Christian "No Choice Café" logo done in Starbucks style with the picture of a coffee mug-toting fetus, "The Christers," a Blink-182 inspired Christian punk rock band, and the religious abstinence hotline (hands-down the best joke in the film—"Keep her on the phone and she won't get the bone"), this is a film born of a particular kind of animosity towards conservatism.
Really, the only thing that drags the film down is the acting performances, no doubt due to most of the cast not having much acting experience prior to this film. Shawn and Shelly are surprisingly effective in their roles, but Al's performance is more wooden and stiff than it should be. To be fair, he has the harder part—he's the only one who's actually required to, you know, emote. Still, many of the roles are stiffer than they should be.
Shot on DV, Never Been Thawed shows its budget here, with abhorrently grainy night shots, washed-out colors and a soft, hazy level of detail. Still, the source material exhibits no major flaws. The 5.1 surround track is loud and forceful with clear dialogue, but does a poor job of splitting dialogue between front and rear channels—voices often echo unnaturally in both channels.
There are only two extras included, but they're good ones—two feature-length commentary tracks, the first from the director Sean Anders and producers Chuck LeVinus and John Morris, and the second from cast and crew members. One downside to the cast commentary is the fidelity. It sounds like one single microphone in a conference room, and many participants are nearly impossible to hear. Both commentaries are great for what they are—funny, engaging, informative, and hilarious.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Never Been Thawed is undeniably hilarious but mildly schizophrenic, unable to decide exactly what kind of film it wants to be. Swinging from Clerks-inspired foul-mouthed buddy comedy to dry, sardonic satire, then into the realm of romantic comedy, it crams itself full of elements that do not exactly exist harmoniously with one another.
The premise of the movie—a mockumentary about obsessive collectors—feels undermined by the randomly inserted raucous humor and juvenile mischievousness spread throughout the film like so much thick peanut butter. Much of the dialogue feels ad-libbed, amusingly so, but the film lets its actors run around wild. Oh, it makes for a funny film, no doubt…just not a very well-balanced one.
Like, what the hell do all the deaf jokes have to do with anything? Sure, they're…kind of funny, in a lowbrow Comedy Central sort of way, but completely and utterly irrelevant in this film.
Never Been Thawed is a surprisingly amusing debut from a group of naturally funny filmmakers. Like all debut films, it tries to accomplish too much in too short a time, but hell, so does every independent film I've ever seen. I'd like to see more good things in the future from these filmmakers.
I've never heard of getting a "rusty trombone." If only I had an abstinence councilor to explain it to m—oh, GOD NO.
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