The concept of watching a documentary about a YouTube celebrity—in the case of Winnebago Man, it's Jack "The Angriest Man in the World" Rebney, famous for profanity-laced outtakes from a 1988 Winnebago promotional film—makes me uncomfortable. So writing a review of a documentary about a YouTube celebrity makes me want to vomit all over myself. Which, should I have the foresight to get it on tape, might gain me thousands of Web hits and an eventual documentary of my own.
All of which is to say we've definitely been had. Reality-TV stars get the paparazzi treatment, and American Idols sell tell-all books. We're more interested in Lindsay Lohan's jail stints than we are in her actual movies—or, heaven forbid, her music. Somewhere along the line this snake ate itself, and this country is navel-gazing so long and intently that the lint's starting to look like an entire constellation.
And yet, out of all these layers of disposability, filmmaker Ben Steinbauer dredges up some meaning. He makes a film that gives a furious, flailing caricature of a man—a man whose worst day ever has become his only legacy—his humanity back. At least, Steinbauer tries his best to dignify Rebney. The star's perverse love of the camera, his sloppily verbose vocabulary and his overly theatrical reluctance to reveal any of his life's details all conspire to win back the one-dimensional image Steinbauer works so hard to smash. The director, undeterred by his subject's on-and-off persona, still has a message: There's a human being here somewhere, and we best not forget it.
For a few sparkling minutes, Steinbauer sets aside his own dull commentary on Rebney ("His unrestrained anger was somehow liberating.") for some fascinating insight into the lives of people whose foibles have gone viral on the Internet. After setting the mood with a video buffet of horrifying and hilarious caught-on-tape buffoonery, Steinbauer introduces us to the more sobering cases of Ghyslain "Star Wars Kid" Raza and Aleksey Vayner, whose unintentionally hilarious video résumé has been parodied far and wide. Raza wound up in a psychiatric ward, and Vayner—whom Steinbauer briefly interviews—seems genuinely confused by the negative attention, which he says earned him death threats.
The section is fascinating and legitimately challenging to anyone who ever got a good belly laugh out of someone else's misfortune. Unfortunately, it's also short-lived. Most of the film is hijacked by Rebney—a man who spent years working as a television producer, and seems to want to retain control over the documentary process just as much as Winnebago Man's filmmakers do. Steinbauer, who is (as Rebney insists) "a nice kid from Texas," grudgingly goes along with Rebney's presentation of himself and eventually gives up on explaining who "The Angriest Man in the World" really is. We're left with questions: Does he have a family somewhere? Is he running from the law? Is he gay? (The last question isn't meant to badger—Rebney's exceedingly sweet, mustachioed best friend, Keith Gordon, says that Rebney "took him in" when Gordon was down on his luck; Rebney gets red-faced with anger when asked if he's ever been married.)
It seems silly to give so much camera time to a man who refuses to be humanized, and waiting for a revelation begins to feel just as voyeuristic as watching Rebney, a man crumbling before our very eyes, scream at the intern on the set of his commercial ("What does the goddamn line say, Tony?" "Man, I'd like to kick your fucking head in," "Tony, do me a favor, please? Will you do me a kindness?").
But Steinbauer does eventually strike some gold by taking Rebney and Keith to the Found Footage Festival in San Francisco. After meeting fans of his outtake video—people he has trashed throughout the film—Rebney is visibly moved. "I was concerned that they were room-temperature-IQ'd idiots," he says. "And as it turns out, they were clever, quick, observant people." He's visibly moved by the experience. Maybe having a fan base—even an unintentional fan base—is legacy enough. But Rebney quickly clarifies: "Now why the hell they'd watch a lousy fucking video like that is something I'll never know."
opens Friday at Cinema 21.