Sometimes small films can have unexpected heroes. For my money, one of the most valuable players in the indie comedy Meet Monica Velour is the graphic designer (or designers) who worked up its opening credit sequence. It gives us a kind of quickie history of the title character, a superstar of the Nina Hartley-Annie Sprinkle order, who headlined skin flicks during the “golden age of porn” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But these folks don’t just find someone with the look of the period, and think up some funny porn titles; they work up posters for titles like “Hooked on Hookers,” “New Wave Nookie,” “M*U*F*F,” and “Pork ‘N Mindy” that look absolutely authentic to both the source material and to the period. (I think. From what I’ve heard about pornography. Um…) That kind of attention to detail is part of what makes Meet Monica Velour, a fundamentally scanty little movie, work as well as it does; they create a little world credibly, so that even the broader moments have a degree of reality to them.
Tobe (Dustin Ingram) is a dork and outcast, about to graduate from high school. He doesn’t fit in, primarily because he’s hung up on the past—1950s cars, 1930s music, 1970s cinema. He’s particularly fond of the work of Monica Velour (Kim Cattrall), who did the standard swing from girlie magazines to stag films before dropping out of the scene in the mid 1980s and basically disappearing. His crush on her offers a distraction from his depressing life; he doesn’t know his father and his mother died when he was young, so he lives with his grandfather (Brian Dennehy) and works at the “family business,” a giant wiener-mobile. The opportunity to sell that vehicle puts Tobe on the road; he gets an offer from a Pop artist (Keith David) in Indiana to buy it, and discovers that Monica is doing a strip-club appearance nearby. It doesn’t go well; she’s heckled by some frat boys, and when Tobe tries to defend her honor, he gets his face smashed. So begins their peculiar relationship, which is the focus of the picture.
The years haven’t been too kind to Monica. She looks great for her age, of course (Cattrall is de-glamed but still magnetic), but she’s had a rotten couple of decades, luck-wise; she lives in a trailer home, she’s broke, and her scumbag ex-husband (Sam McMurray) is keeping their daughter from her. Writer/director Keith Bearden wisely resists the urge to write Monica as some kind of a heart-of-gold cliché—she’s made some bad decisions, and in the course of the film, she makes some more. But Cattrall gives her, beyond the required toughness, a certain dignity and flashes of vulnerability that lends the characterization some real weight (even when she’s mouthing pat—though funny—lines like “Swear to God, you screw a few hundred guys and the world turns against you”). It’s a fully-realized, three-dimensional performance.
Ingram is a likeable nerd; he occasionally veers into Jon Heder territory (particularly in the strip club scene, which his overplaying almost wrecks), but he’s engaging; you’re on his side. Dennehy doesn’t do much new here—he’s been playing these crusty grandpa roles for years now (to a young neighbor boy: “Yeah, yeah, I’ll supervise you. Get me another beer!”)—but he’s mighty funny. Keith David is a welcome addition as well; he’s got a great little speech about pop culture artifacts, and a wonderful reaction when Tobe tells him he’s in love with Monica (“I hate to be the one to say this to you, but you may not be big enough to go on this ride”).
Meet Monica Velour is enjoyable, if a bit on the safe side—it too frequently goes for the easy joke or plays for the easy pathos, sanding down a story that might have been more interesting with some rougher edges. But there’s also an innocence to its dirtiness, a likability reminiscent of the R-rated 1980s comedies that, in some ways, helped usher out the films that Monica and her brethren fronted. It’s a funny, sweet movie—and some of the best work Cattrell has ever done.
"Meet Monica Velour" screens April 29 and 30 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.