A fitfully amusing valentine to the late-night picture shows of bygone years, The Independent commemorates the decades-long career of indefatigable exploitation titan Morty Fineman (Jerry Stiller), a shaggy composite of Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, and any number of filmmakers who made their name working with tight budgets and tighter hot pants. Stephen Kessler’s scattershot mockumentary opens with Morty teetering on the verge of financial ruin and his daughter, Paloma (Janeane Garofalo), grudgingly agreeing to one more bailout. The only Fineman project on the horizon, however, requires the dubious participation of a serial killer, and the only film festival willing to mount a career retrospective is located in a hooker community near a Nevada military base.
Both stars depend heavily on shtick—Stiller’s fulminating bugle cries, Garofalo’s sadsack mortification—and while The Independent dutifully racks up the drive-by cameos (Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Karen Black, and others show up to shower the 427-title Fineman oeuvre with backhanded compliments), it lacks the coherent internal logic that distinguishes the best mockumentaries. Still, director-cowriter Kessler has a field day contriving the highlights of Morty’s filmography in convincingly degraded clips and trailers. Each Mr. Show-worthy sketch outdoes the previous one: the Nam protest film Brothers Divided (Siamese twins are drafted), the legal drama Christ for the Defense, the compromised studio effort Whale of a Cop (think Free Willy as a policier, with a blowholed, uniformed Ben Stiller in the lead), the Seventh Seal-inspired VD allegory The Simplex Complex. By the time Kessler gets to Morty’s hubristic, career-mangling, alternate-universe-Costner epic, The Whole of America, The Independent has assembled a perhaps inadvertently persuasive case that Morty Fineman was not just a tit man with a movie camera but a damn good filmmaker.