TERRE HAUTE —
William Tanoos and Paul Fleschner cast their hometown in a starring role in their debut effort as filmmakers.
Given that chance, Terre Haute sparkled.
The Indiana Theatre overflowed with Hauteans for Saturday night’s premiere of “The Drunk,” and the movie brimmed with local scenery. Tanoos, Fleschner and their supporters gave the city and its landmark movie house a unique and unforgettable evening. They gave a crowd of 1,300 a reminder of the community’s history and possibilities. Searchlights scanned the snowy sky above Seventh and Ohio streets downtown. Red carpet stretched into the bustling lobby where photo ops with the local actors awaited. The ornate room grew into a sea of handshakes, hugs and hellos. The revived, 91-year-old theater itself glowed as in its heyday, defying its age.
Wow, what a sight.
Tanoos and Fleschner filmed “The Drunk” almost entirely in Terre Haute, and as natives of the city, they astutely culled its most captivating venues as backdrops. Together, the duo wrote, directed and acted in the movie, depicting the unsteady life of young Joe Debs, the fictional grandson of Terre Haute-born social activist Eugene V. Debs (who in reality had no children). Tanoos and Fleschner literally open a door many locals have never entered, into the life and home of America’s most famous “radical,” Eugene Debs.
Several scenes take place in Debs’ house on North Eighth Street, now preserved as a museum. Re-created recordings of his passionate speeches help explain his legacy. An unexpected visit to the museum by a pair of politically hip, female college students allows Joe (played by Tanoos) to recount ideas espoused by his grandfather, whose views sounded subversive in the early 20th century but are mainstream today. The plot bravely illuminates the five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate’s humanitarian idealism and crusades for society’s forgotten. The two women are receptive to Joe’s museum tour (a surprise to him), but the general public keeps his grandfather’s achievements closeted, just as in real life.
For Joe, his last name lingers as both a source of pride and baggage, a “scarlet letter” as his mother (the colorful Cindy Gold) puts it. Joe’s own life is a rudderless existence. He’s apathetic about his future. His affable, good-timing nature gets overwhelmed by his alcoholism, an addiction to which he seems oblivious. His drinking, its impact on others and the “socialist” stigma he’s inherited inject fireworks into Joe’s improbable decision to run for governor of Indiana against the well-connected, corrupt local prosecutor, Bruce Frye (Hollywood veteran Tom Sizemore). Joe and Frye aren’t strangers; a tragedy years earlier poisoned their bond, turning it into bitter animosity.
It’s the perfect brew for a nasty political campaign between the two men.
As the rivals target the other’s jugular, they betray, coerce and manipulate staffers in both camps. Their friction provides the highlights. Tanoos and Fleschner share their finest moment as Joe and his longtime friend and campaign manager, Larry Donegan (played by Fleschner), split apart. In the context of their acting debuts, both deliver promising performances. Tanoos looks completely at ease in front of the camera and excels in the picture’s comedic instances, particularly in an ill-advised but hilarious TV ad for his campaign. Fleschner exhibits a flair for nuanced scenes, especially in Larry’s intense rebukes of Joe’s impulsive decisions and Larry’s poignant bedtime chat with his ailing daughter.
Sizemore skillfully portrays Frye with an explosive temper, spicing up his encounters with Joe and Larry. Their exchanges include more than a few profanities, but the most jarring comes from Jesse Ventura in his role as Indiana’s outgoing governor. He nukes an otherwise sentimental moment by dropping that four-letter bomb while giving Joe fatherly advice on disingenuous political parties and endearing the audience to Eugene Debs’ memory by saying, “Your grandfather was my hero.” Still, Ventura lends a compelling presence (even though the idea of Hoosiers electing him governor, as Minnesotans once did, defies probability). Maura Kidwell confidently plays Joe’s girlfriend, guiding him, along with Larry, toward a wakeup call desperately needed in his lifestyle.
Most Americans know little about Eugene Debs. Many who do dismiss him as a “two-bit, socialist convict,” just as Frye does in the film, referring to Debs’ 1920 run for president while a political prisoner in a Georgia penitentiary; he polled nearly 1 million votes. The film introduces viewers to the more timeless side of him. Likewise, it grants historically rich Terre Haute an overdue cinematic niche, compared to other Hoosier towns such as Bloomington (setting for “Breaking Away,” “Blue Chips” and “Kinsey”).
At its premiere, audience members pointed toward the huge theater screen, recognizing local people and places. The excitement included a curiosity about the next project for Tanoos and Fleschner. As their filmmaking style tightens up, their future ventures could be fascinating. Their first effort, “The Drunk,” treats viewers to an entertaining sip of what’s ahead for two talented guys.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.