By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley, and the Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol.
In a genre overwhelmingly dominated by major studios, nine-digit budgets, digital animation, wisecracking animals, A-list voice casts, and costly pop song licensing rights, animator Bill Plympton remains an iconoclast. Cheatin’, which had its U.S. premiere at Slamdance in January 2014 but is only now trickling out to theaters, is Plympton’s seventh feature film. It has all of the Plympton hallmarks, most especially the hand-drawn animation (you can practically feel every stroke of his pencil), but also the lack of true dialogue, the grotesque character design, and the focus on body mutilation and transmogrification. The film is structured as a series of absurdist gags, many of them quite crude, but it coalesces into a more traditional narrative as it develops. After a “meet-cute” on the bumper cars that is more horrifying than endearing, a young man and woman find love and an intense physical chemistry together, but a scheming woman tears them apart. Plympton blends elements from Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Being John Malkovich, and The Prestige into this story of sex, obsession, revenge, and magic, and there are a number of awe-inspiring visual sequences. You certainly can’t fault Plympton for ambition; if only the jokes were a little stronger!