The documentary My Heart is An Idiot, David Meiklejohn’s directorial debut, follows the romantic travails of the amusingly — and sometimes painfully — solipsistic Davy Rothbart, the founder of Found Magazine, a compendium of found notes and love letters sent in from around the country. More interestingly for our purposes, Rothbart also provided the story for Easier with Practice, the brilliant phone-sex indie that garnered a criminally unfair NC-17 from the MPAA last year.
You can see the creepy-but-sweet origins of Easier with Practice in My Heart is An Idiot, in which Meiklejohn documented two annual tours that Rothbart took in support of Found. Originally conceived as a documentary about the magazine tours, a more interesting tale of unrequited obsession grew out of it, which Meiklejohn meticulously edited together over the last few years, along with a side story — that I won’t spoil — recreated with staged footage and narrated in a This American Life manner (Ira Glass, coincidentally, makes an appearance in the film).
At the center is Rothbart, a sports-jersey-and-gold-chain wearing hipster, who grew up with a strange compulsion to film himself weeping after early break-ups, embarrassing and funny bawling episodes that both frame the film and suffice as the film’s narrative callback. We learn early on that Rothbart is romantically interested in Alex, his roommate in Ann Arbor who — how do I put this kindly — is way too pretty for him. She flirts, and gently strings him along until she moves to San Francisco, abandoning Rothbart with an idealistic vision of of the perfect woman and delusions of reciprocity. Those boy-crush delusions blossom into something grander as he approaches San Francisco on his tour and begins to hint to his friends at future marriage proposals, only to be kindly but not definitively shot down by Alex once he reaches San Francisco on the tour’s first go-around.
It’s then that the second narrative is revealed, and as as bombshells go, it’s not exactly Catfish, but it helps to frame Rothbart’s obsession and paint him as something akin to a sympathetic douchebag: He’s a big-hearted asshole, which takes away the sting of the (500 Days) of Summer (or Paper Heart) arc and brings a certain sense of humor to his ultimate heartbreak.
My Heart is an Idiot plays, at times, like a superficial meditation on love, as Rothbart seeks relationship advice from friends and strangers he meets on tour — including Newt Gingrich, Zooey Deschanel, and the aforementioned Ira Glass — as well as that of his mother, a deaf woman who channels the spirit of a 2000-year-old Buddhist soul. But aside from a few effective moments of pathos, it’s clear from the outset that Rothbart is the foil of his own love story, and his agony and heartbreak provide the documentary’s biggest source of humor.
My Heart is an Idiot, which is currently on a screening tour (it stops in Boston tonight, and New York and D.C. later this week before a West Coast jaunt in June; check here for screening times) — feels like a festival film, one that wouldn’t be at all out of place at Sundance or SXSW. That’s to its credit — it’s aimless at times; is packed this hipster-y bluster; and it hits a few lulls, including a sweet but ultimately pointless side trip to scatter the ashes of a friend’s mother (here in Portland) — but it also hits several high notes, dabbles in nonreciprocating adulation, and provides more than a few intentional and not-so-intentional laughs at the expense of the romantic protaganist, a relationship “con artist” (mostly in his own mind, and that of his crazy mother’s). At the very least, it has an excellent soundtrack (which includes Okkervil River) and it introduced me to this wonderful little ditty based on one of the Found discoveries: “Booty Don’t Stop”:
It’s well worth checking out if it comes to your city and when it eventually shows up on Netflix Instant. Here’s the trailer: