NUTS! (Hot Docs Review)
The implicit trust that comes with viewing documentaries gets abused in Penny Lane’s NUTS!, a documentary about an interesting—and overlooked—story from Depression-era America. The subject in Lane’s film is Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, a doctor from Kansas who attempted to cure impotence by putting goat testicles into his patients. The method appeared to work, and Brinkley went on to be a success, turning his fortune into an empire when he invested it into building a radio station. As Brinkley’s success grew, the American Medical Association began targeting him because of his unorthodox medical practices, taking him to court and trying to ruin his businesses. Lane tells Brinkley’s story entirely through animated re-enactments, with a few talking head interviews along the way.
If the idea of goat testicle transplants curing impotence sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is; Brinkley was nothing more than an excellent con artist who took advantage of the placebo effect to paint himself as a medical genius. And Lane, taking inspiration from Brinkley, structures her film as a con job on viewers, treating Brinkley’s story as true until she pulls back the curtain in the final act. But Lane’s decision to deceive is misguided. In her attempt to point out how people are easy to let themselves be duped Lane only highlights the staleness of her message, along with the ethical murkiness of lying about such slight material. In reality, Lane’s deception is fueled by entertainment more than anything, as it gives her the ability to manufacture a twisty narrative while excusing her own behaviour by explaining herself at the end.
If NUTS! had a purpose for its narrative structure beyond trying to pull a fast one on viewers for kicks, it might have been less objectionable. Instead, Lane takes advantage of non-fiction for petty and selfish reasons, which makes Lane not too far removed from her own subject.