The Civilization of Maxwell Bright is a movie that tries hard to do the right thing, but it falls back on the old, lazy, entrenched bigotries so prevalent in Hollywood that, despite being an indie film, it might as well have been a $10M studio film for all the cultural “good” it does.
Maxwell Bright (Patrick Warburton) is a fucking asshole. He’s an entitled, white, well-off, misogynist electronics salesman who we first see running naked out of his house, chasing his girlfriend who has just hit him on the head. It wasn’t a debilitating blow, obviously, because he’s capable of violently screaming at her about how she wants to spend a selfish 45 minutes having sex. Also, she doesn’t give him enough blow jobs like he deserves. The police arrive and both officers think he’s the aggressor, which Max blames on them being female and irrational. The girlfriend then jams a garden implement into his chest.
A couple of weeks pass and Max is acting out and berating his employees. His lifelong friend and floor manager Arlis (Eric Roberts, one of my favorite actors) defends him. That night, Arlis and other friends join Max at his house for poker. They all slam women in extremely stereotypical, sexist ways, and then Max has an “epiphany”. I wish there was a better word for it, because he didn’t so much have an epiphany as come up with a stupid, paranoid theory that he thinks explains why his life sucks: Women in the U.S. are taught to be manipulative bitches in college, while Asian women are taught to please men and do anything for them. Therefore, he decides to get an Asian mail order bride.
This opening act is the perfect example of why The Civilization of Maxwell Bright fails. The encounter on the lawn with the police officers is an illustration of the failed post-sexist rhetoric that pervades allegedly progressive entertainment, media, and most especially Internet discussion. A discussion about domestic violence occurs and it takes 0.001 seconds before some guy shows up shouting “Women sometimes hit men too! Why aren’t women punished like men, huh?!” They relate individual anecdotal accounts of how a man was a victim This One Time ™ and insist that proves that men are victims of reverse sexism.
That’s how every scene is played in the film. I watched the entire movie thinking there would be payoff, that we’d see some acknowledgment that Max wasn’t a completely innocent victim, that any police officer regardless of gender would have worried about Max’s girlfriend’s safety. I mean, there’s a 6’4″, 250 lbs naked man screaming at a woman half his size, telling her in a threatening manner that she doesn’t give him enough blow jobs. But no, we’re supposed to see Max as a victim and as a metaphor for the entire U.S. culture. Post-sexist rhetoric revels in grand, sweeping judgments about all American women based on anecdata selected for maximum male victimhood, and this film is a fictionalized version of said anecdata.
The film also fails because it indulges in the worst kind of tokenism, starting with the commercially artificial group of friends that include one black man, one Asian, and everyone else white. The guy who sells Max his wife is a stereotypical, urbane, effete British man. When Max digs up a graveyard, the cop lets him get away with it because he’s a good ol’ Southern boy stereotype who has dug graves himself. Buddhism is misrepresented for comedic effect and is legitimized only when it gets the seal of approval from a Christian preacher in a small hole-in-the-wall church who dubs Mai Ling “the lamb of God”.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. After his “epiphany,” Max buys Mai Ling (Marie Matiko), 28-year-old Chinese woman, via slaver wife broker Wroth (Simon Callow). At first it seems Max shapes up a bit when Mai Ling arrives, but later that night as she meditates, he throws a pillow at her head and tells her he didn’t buy her just so she could meditate. The next day he hosts poker night and all the friends applaud Mai Ling’s service to them. Even the token Asian friend, who earlier had given Max the evil side-eye when he ranted about how Asian women were trained up real good, hoots and hollers at her like she’s a fucking parlor trick.
And that’s how this film goes. It revels in the basest kind of bigotry but has a few hints here and there that the story is going somewhere, only to let you down when you realize someone just edited in a meaningful look but forgot to follow up on it.
Mai Ling, who is nothing more than a caricature of the obedient Asian woman, puts up with everything Max does. Her purpose in the film is to rehabilitate Max because he “deserves” it, according to her ancient and mystical and super cool religion which has karma and shit. The lack of understanding of what Buddhism is really about makes Maxwell Bright look like a thread on the LiveJournal buddhism community. Both are examples of Westerners who think Buddhism seems really neat, who maybe read a book about meditation once, and who think tolerating abusive, sociopathic, violent behavior makes them tolerant just like Buddhists are. Then they pat themselves on the back for being so tolerant and just awesome Buddhists, you guys!
Mai Ling’s other purpose is to portray American women as having lost their way, with reasons galore for how buying and selling daughters and arranged marriages work better than women having free will. Not joking.
Max’s business fails so he very rationally holes himself up with a semi-automatic weapon and shoots the television sets to keep the repo men from getting them. His employees — all men — are shouting, “Don’t shoot him, he’s not going to hurt anyone, he just wants to shoot televisions!” and acting like the female police officers are the ones who are irrational. Max shouts at the policewomen that he won’t be arrested “by some bull dyke bitch cunts.” He’s then felled by a panic attack mimicking a heart attack, only to find out in the hospital afterward that he’s riddled with cancer on multiple organs.
Mai Ling then has her third purpose: To rehabilitate Max before he dies. When Max comes to understand that he’s been cruel to a lot of women, he’s immediately excused by Lamb Of God Buddhist Nun Feng Shui Expert Mai Ling who says women have screwed him, which is why he’s the way he is.
There are good points to this film. I didn’t just stick with it because I thought there would be a decent resolution, although that was the main reason. The first and biggest positive point about this film is Patrick Warburton, who absolutely kills with his performance. He plays Max as the paranoid, ridiculous asshole he is, as a man without any redeemable qualities whatsoever. There’s really no other way to play Max, although director David Beaird obviously disagrees. In fact, Warburton’s performance undermines the labored metaphors Beaird was working for, and I consider that a good thing.
Eric Roberts is wonderful in the film, just spot on. His Arlis is the only guy who calls Max on his bigotries, and he is frequently the only one who knows lines have been crossed at all; the other characters apparently know nothing of boundaries. His niceness, acceptance, and tolerance are bashed constantly in the film, and again that’s something that could have been used so effectively in the film but was just ignored.
What I thought was interesting but obviously unintentional was how the women in this film acted. They put up with everything as though the abuse and insults were just how life was for them, and speaking from experience, that’s often the truth. Women in professional situations silently moved on when they were called “fucking cunts” by Max, although the oncologist does show a momentary flash of anger. She immediately follows with compassion and understanding, just ignoring Max’s outbursts, which again is what women are expected to do.
One woman, though, stands up to him. A police officer arrives when his furniture is being repo’ed. She saw Max on the news as he shot up televisions in his store and remembers his rant about how “those feminist dyke bitches are trying to ruin men”, and tells him so when he starts calling her sexist names. When his friends defend him saying he’s sick, she says, “Good. I hope he dies.” Then his friends yell at her for stepping over the line, but note that none of them yelled at Max during any of the dozen times he yelled variations on “bitch cunt dyke whore feminist twat” at women he didn’t like. At strangers he didn’t like. Just as it was with the incident with the girlfriend at the beginning of the film, the cop who wouldn’t take Max’s shit was intended as an example of how women screwed Max over and caused him to be this way.
The film could have done well as a dark comedy if they had just stayed on that path and focused on the relationships between American males and the slow, ugly disintegration of our male-dominated culture (which my husband insists “The Venture Bros” is about… but I digress). Instead, someone felt a story about a horrible human being literally purchasing a woman so she could save him from American women who are ruining the lives of all men was the story to tell.