Bickford Shmeckler's Cool Ideas

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 09/11/07 21:42:13

"Don't let the dopey title fool you."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It’s obvious that writer/director Scott Lew is trying a bit too hard with “Bickford Shmeckler’s Cool Ideas.” I mean, you don’t reach a point where you’re naming characters “Bickford Shmeckler” without first wading through some seriously sweaty desperation, screaming toward the heavens, “How, oh how, can I show how quirky and peculiar my outsider hero is?”

Fortunately, the character name is Lew’s only big mistake in a movie that is otherwise delightfully silly, off-kilter, and unexpectedly sweet. The eccentricities on display here seldom feel as forced as one would expect, and as the story builds, the characters actually get a chance to grow. It’s a movie full of good moments and interesting people.

Patrick Fugit stars as Bickford, a withdrawn geek who spends most of his time lurking in his basement bedroom, pondering away at life’s deepest thoughts. A mastery of both science and philosophy leads him to writing “The Book,” a collection of essays and random notes he says combines to create a “unified theory of everything.” That’s right - a college kid just cracked the meaning of life. (Or, judging by the few bits actually revealed, a college kid just whipped up a whole bunch of admittedly pseudo-intellectual nonsense. But hey, isn’t that what being a college kid is all about?)

His book is stolen during a toga party (Bickford, dressed in normal attire, assumed the “toga” of “toga party” just meant “a state of mind”) by Sarah (Olivia Witt), a nymphomaniac pothead who, it turns out, isn’t quite the flaky blonde we think she is when we first meet her. Sarah is the one who discovers that reading Bickford’s writings leads to a “braingasm,” a mental/sexual stimulation combo meal that’s actually funnier than it sounds. A string of complications leads the book into the hands of other characters, including a homeless loon named Spaceman (Matthew Lillard), and it finally reaches the clutches of a D&D club who then circulates copies as if they were religious tracts, leaving the entire campus braingasming.

All of that sounds like it’s straining for the quirks, yet it all comes together with great ease. The film never quite feels like it’s about its own plot - the storyline silliness is instead just an excuse for us to hang out with some enjoyable characters for eighty-some minutes. Lew takes an easy-going approach to his own material, letting the laid-back tone win us over.

It doesn’t hurt that his cast is loaded with pure charm, most notably Fugit, who’s so easily watchable in everything he does, and Witt, who takes a potentially flat character and finds ways to breathe extra dimensions into the role. Smallish turns from Cho, Greg Pitts, and Mageina Tovah as members of the D&D club add plenty of strong laughs; Lillard turns in the sort of bright performance that makes you wonder why he doesn’t bother turning in more bright performances; relative newcomer Fran Kranz, as Bickford’s lone friend, is a wonderful find; Cheryl Hines shows up late in the film for a fun turn as an intrusive professor; Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant of “Reno 911!” drop by for giggly cameos as dim-witted campus cops.

It’s the sort of movie where the cast makes or breaks everything, and here, they make it. Thanks to them, “Bickford Shmeckler” becomes instantly huggable, a warm charm hanging over the entire production. It’s the sort of small-scale comedy that invites multiple viewings, just so we can spent a little more time with these fascinating folks.

Of note is the movie’s backstory. During the early stages of production, Lew was diagnosed with ALS. Filming then became a race against time, Lew struggling to finish his film before the disease left him unable to work any further. He succeeded (quite well, in fact), and the movie’s producers have since decided to donate their proceedings, plus a sizable chunk of the production company’s own revenues, to ALS charities. It’s a nice anecdote, accompanying a wonderfully light and frothy campus comedy that’s well worth a look.

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