Plympton's uncomfortably unnatural style creates beautiful set pieces in his mildly enjoyable new feature
Bill Plympton’s signature sketchy animated style is wholly unique and decidedly peculiar. Characters are given exaggerated features that appear more unsettling than flattering, and they move within the frame with slow, deliberate, or inhuman motions. Often, portions of the frame are left unfinished or barely detailed, drawing focus to the subject. Cheatin’ maintains the cartoonist’s tradition of weaving a narrative around intriguingly bizarre animations. The film illustrates a couple that falls in love but turns to infidelity, communicating its story without dialog through beautifully ugly sequences.
Cheatin’ opens on Ella, a stick-ish woman in a flowing yellow dress, sun hat, and clacky high heels. She walks through a carnival turning heads and eliciting wry smiles from the men around her, but Ella’s face remains firmly planted in the book she reads. While Ella has the attributes of an attractive figure, Plympton draws her so thin that she’s distressing. Like many of Plympton’s designs, Ella is elegant and yet a little disgusting, a compelling mixture of beauty and the appalling. After Ella has a spat with one of the carnival barkers, she takes a ride on the bumper cars where she literally crashes into Jake.
Jake is all muscle and bone. His beefy chest funnels into a narrow set of abs held in place by a spine. Again, Plympton’s creation is both the idealized version of the masculine form and a frightening, hulking skeleton with skin fastened around it. The barrel-chest hunk winds up saving Ella from death-by-bumper-car-electrocution, and in a brief fantasy sequence later, the couple consummates their new relationship; however, the lingering temptations of infidelity threaten to break Jake & Ella apart.
Plympton packs his film with comedic and symbolic visual gags. One of Ella’s early fantasies has her reveal to Cupid a small heart that she keeps guarded behind an elaborate series of locks in her chest. Another minor aside features a woman at the salon apply a ‘box of bees’ to her lips, swelling them for a fuller look. These silly sequences effectively characterize Plympton’s creations, illustrating thoughts and flashback in place of them stating their conflicts or emotions out loud. Plympton’s characters pantomime or make a variety of grunting noises in place of the dialog, which communicates the intention of each interaction.
Despite the story’s loosely structured, abstract nature, the inciting incident for Jake & Ella’s infidelity amounts to a clichéd misunderstanding. Plots that could theoretically be resolved by a simple, quick discussion between two characters can be extremely frustrating to watch, but Cheatin’ mostly utilizes the recognizable narrative framework as a vehicle for the absorbing animations. Plympton here gets to explore ideas he finds amusing, but the more story-driven the movie becomes, the less unique it seems. The animator’s ability to blend one setting into another is still wonderful to watch, and Cheatin’ is full of these clever set pieces, many of which will draw laughter. Even when familiar, Plympton finds a new element to mine for a joke with the way it’s drawn in Cheatin’.
The animated film remains quite enjoyable by cycling through its plethora of intricately designed illustrations. The frequent funny bits followed by gorgeous compositions that are uncomfortably unnatural create an oddly hypnotizing narrative. The complexity and slow pace might grow tiresome for those who don’t appreciate Bill Plympton’s style, but those who enjoy the filmmaker’s work will find this feature—Plympton’s seventh—a pleasant, intriguing experience.
Cheatin’ opens Friday, April 3rd at Village East in New York City, with a national rollout to follow. The film will be available on Vimeo On Demand starting April 21st.