By Dave Luhrssen
November 6, 2003
It’s a long way from the palm-fringed boulevards of Hollywood to the icy streets of winterbound Milwaukee, yet the hapless protagonist of the bright new indie comedy Chump Change (Fame, Fortune, Cheese and Beer) has little recourse but to make the journey. Milwaukee Steve is a self-described 35-year-old schlubb without a girlfriend, still making payments on his ’78 Chevy. He had a dream of making it in movies, and his ticket seemed to be a TV ad for a product called CrotchFresh. OK, it’s not a star turn at a prestigious Shakespeare festival, but the commercial made him a recognizable star in some parts.
As Chump Change begins, Steve is driving across Wisconsin’s snowy state line, past the University of Lawsonomy and Mars Cheese, ruing the caprices of fate that led to his return in failure to Milwaukee. What follows is a series of flashbacks, recounted to Sam (Traci Lords), the prickly stranger who’s housesitting for his vacationing mom and sleeping in what was once his bedroom. She relegates Steve to the living room couch.
Chump Change headlined at the Slam Dunk Festival, picked up several awards for comedy, acting and screenwriting and was chosen as a featured film at the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Fest in Aspen, Colo. The laughter generated by director-writer Stephen Burrows (who also stars as Milwaukee Steve) gains momentum as the story progresses. By the end, Chump Change deserves to be called one of America’s funniest recent movies.
Burrows has knocked around Hollywood for more than a decade, mostly acting in television but amassing a diverse resume. One can only assume that some of Chump Change’s comedy was drawn from experience. Failing to capitalize on the CrotchFresh ads, Steve throws himself into a standup audition for an agent who declares that only blacks, gays, overweight people and bald men are currently “in” on the comedy circuit. Steve is none of the above. He endures a method acting class conducted by a pretentious art weirdo who dubs him “Chump Change.” In desperation, Steve decides to fake his own death to drive up his value as an actor (where would James Dean be today if he were alive?). To finance this dotty scheme, he appears on “Wheel of Fortune,” argues with the host, makes an indie short about the incident and gets sued–which somehow grants him indie cred in the credibility-deprived environs of Hollywood.
And then, once his foot is in the door, his troubles multiply exponentially. His smarmy handlers call him “brilliant,” “an American original,” but we know Steve is in for trouble when he meets his producer, a cell phone-chattering vulgarian whose latest coup is a TV sitcom about a family sharing a house with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. He’s a huge fan of Steve. Loved that short film. What’s it called again?
Burrows portrays Hollywood at its most shallow as Steve wrestles with a postmodern Barton Fink routine of writing a screenplay under trying circumstances. Fink’s bosses were culture mavens compared to the gibbering pack of imbeciles he encounters, including movie executives who never watch movies, who think his script includes too much typing, who demand more comedy and then complain that it’s too funny, who think that a fart–or a defecating animal–is always good for laughs. In order to get the green light, Steve must get the thumbs up from the industry’s new “wunderkind,” an executive with his hands around the alleged pulse of the American public. The wunderkind turns out to be a 13-year-old boy, the emotional demographic Hollywood usually has in mind when it makes movies.
Chump Change is supported by an able cast, especially Tracy Lords (Blade, the Francis Ford Coppola-produced TV series “First Wave”) as Sam, the idiosyncratic young woman who gradually becomes Steve’s love interest, and Jerry Stiller as a Hollywood mogul known only as “the Colonel.” Interestingly, what Chump Change shows of Milwaukee is not the city of pricey martini bars and condo developments, which many deluded locals are happy to proclaim as our municipal future, but the eccentric old Milwaukee of the Holler House, the Domes and the Steve Meisner Band, playing a happy polka tune for young and old.