When I reviewed An Angel Named Billy last year, I thought I'd seen the worst LGBT themed movie ever made. What can you say about a film where the writing was so bad they couldn't even give a drag queen a decent name? A movie celebrating a romance so creepy and disturbing and morally dubious it might set gay rights back fifty years if enough people saw it? (Don't worry about that -- the thousand or so members of One Million Moms are too busy supplying the writers of The New Normal with dialogue for the Ellen Barkin character to take notice.)
But that was before I saw Ben & Arthur...
Released in 2002, Ben & Arthur is the brainchild (for lack of a more suitable word) of one Sam Mraovich, who wrote, produced, directed and stars in the role of Arthur. Over the past 10 years, he hasn't done any other feature films, but he's certainly made an impression with this one. On the Internet Movie Database, it's currently ranked #5 in the Bottom 10, meaning there are only four movies that have a lower rating. I think that ranking is unjust, but more on that later. First, relive my journey though this one-of-a-kind (I hope) cinematic experience.
It begins with an opening title sequence, in which Mraovich is listed 11 times (including "producer" and "executive producer"). The music used during this is Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer", and when I was in the kitchen, getting the bagel Bites from the microwave, and heard the melody from the living room, for a few brief seconds, I thought (and, 85 minutes later, wished) Netflix had mistakenly shipped The Sting.
Arthur is napping, fully clothed, including his shoes, when his slumber is interrupted by a phone call from Ben, his lover of three years. Ben is calling from some unknown location outdoors, and urges him to turn on the radio, because there's a breaking news story. I don't know how Ben is hearing about it while strolling through some park, or why he can't simply tell Arthur over the phone.
Anyway, Arthur fumbles the dial on a radio, and learns that it's now legal for gay couples to marry in Hawaii. Ben arrives at the apartment "5 Hours Later" (according to a random title card), and Arthur flies excitedly into his arms. The two decide to fly to Hawaii to get married, and begin packing. Ben pulls out a bunch of shirts, hangers and all, and dumps then in a suitcase, then tops them of with a box of papers.
Their joy is short-lived, however, as it turns out that, in fact, the ruling on gay marriage in Hawaii is still in legal limbo, and couples may have to wait another two years. Arthur flies into a rage, because the plane tickets are non-refundable, and stomps around cursing in the first of many hissy fits he has throughout the film. Hoping to calm Arthur down, Ben explains that it's just as well, since he's been married to a woman for the past five years. Arthur retreats to his bedroom and begins scribbling in his diary.
Ben gets a visit from his wife, Tammy, who, like nearly everyone in this movie, seems completely insane. She's unable to accept the fact that he's left her and moved in with a man (didn't she notice after three years?). He tells her he wants a divorce so he can marry Arthur. She flatly refuses. He tells her, "I'm a homosexual. I have the papers right here." (I didn't know you needed documentation to prove you're gay nowadays; that new Arizona law is strict...oh, wait, he was talking about divorce papers). She tosses the papers back in his face and storms out the door. Well, if the hissy fits...
Ben and Arthur work at a coffee shop where the patrons disappear and switch places, and waiters come to the table to refill paper cups. Ben used to be a nurse, but apparently gave it up for a dishwashing job, but has dreams of becoming a musician. (Playing what, we don't know. There are no musical instruments at the apartment, and we never seem him playing, writing, or doing anything that has to do with music.) Arthur expresses dissatisfaction with his job, and tells us he'd like to go back to college to take a business course, with the goal of starting a porn shop. Ben tells him he supports Arthur's dream and even agrees to give up his glamorous dishwashing job to go back to nursing. A customer pushes Arthur too far by asking him to brig her sugar for her coffee, so he storms back into the kitchen, discards his apron and leaves the coffee shop, giggling like a loon.
Having quit his job, Arthur now goes in search of a new one to pay for college. He goes to a nightclub to audition as a dancer. The club owner asks to see his moves, which would be a little easier if there were music playing. Arthur obliges, and dispels the stereotype about gay men being good dancers. When he's finished, the club owner asks to see Arthur's penis. Arthur doesn't get the job. Whether this was because he refused the owner's request, or agreed to it, I can't say.
Arthur gets a letter in the mail that reads "You will not marry a man! I'm warning you!" He shows it to Ben, and they both wonder who it came from. Neither of them bother to look for a postmark or return address. Since only two people seem to know about the upcoming nuptials -- Crazy Tammy and Crazy Victor -- it shouldn't be too big a mystery anyway.
Ben, meanwhile, has been sorting out the issue of getting a legal marriage now that Hawaii is out. He tells Arthur, "I know a great lawyer -- you can give him a call." The lawyer turns out to be a woman (I guess Ben doesn't know her too well), whose legal advice leaves something to be desired. She tells them to fly to Vermont to get a civil union, which will be recognized in their home state of California, under the "Full Faith and Credibility [sic] Clause". (Ben neglects to tell the lawyer he's still married to Tammy -- maybe he's planning on waiting three years, like he did with Arthur)
The couple hop a flight on Alaska Airlines to sunny Vermont, where, at an outdoor church alter amid swaying palm trees, they have a commitment ceremony, presided over by a senile priest. They're finally married! They hop a Fed-Ex cargo plane back to California, where their lawyer assures them their civil union should be recognized.
Victor, meanwhile, tries to get in touch with Arthur, calling him repeatedly without ever getting an answer. Unable to take a hint, he contacts a Private Investigator. The P.I., Justin, appears about 17 or 18 years old, and when Victor notes that he looks too young, Justin explains that he's actually an intern. This doesn't stop him from charging $800 a day for his services. Victor asks him to tail Arthur, explaining, "My brother is a homosexual. He's marrying a man. I need to know what his next move is." Justin tells him it will take two days to find out anything.
"Two days Later" (according to the title card), Victor, acting on a tip from Doogie Howser, P.I., follows the Lawyer to a parking garage, approaches her car, and shoots her. She dies instantly, slumping on the horn. Victor flees, unnoticed.
Arthur finally calls Victor back, and agrees to accept his brother's earlier dinner invitation. For some reason, Arthur is dressed in the exact same clothes Victor was wearing when he phoned the Private Eye. Either this is symbolic of...something...or the wardrobe budget was really small.
Arthur and Ben arrive at Victor's place for dinner, where they feast on graham crackers and milk, and Victor introduces them to Stan, his totally heterosexually married with kids friend. Stan asks Arthur when he's planning to have kids and Victor interjects, "When he's married to a lovely wife." When Arthur reminds Victor that he's gay, Stan tells him they have ways of curing that, if he'll just visit the church five times a week. Realizing he and Ben have been ambushed by religious zealots, he has another fit, and they leave. Victor decides that "drastic measures" will have to be taken.
At home, Arthur apologizes to Ben for dragging him to the worst dinner party ever, and the two make love (because I guess arguments about Jesus turn them on.) The next morning, Ben wakes up to find four large flowers by his pillow, and a touching, romantic note from Arthur: "Ben: Went to get food. Love ya! --Arthur"
He lays back dreamily and starts to doze off again.
Crazy Tammy returns. As she shuts off her car and reaches into her glove compartment for a gun, she mutters, "I can't believe I'm gonna do this." I feel certain this was not a scripted line, but rather the actress expressing her real feelings about the scene she's about to do, because when she confronts Ben the results are so ludicrous that...oh, just watch it:
And note Ben's magical blue sweater.
There's a knock at the door. It's Mildred (spelled "Mildread" according to the credits), the cranky coffee shop customer who dared to ask Arthur for sugar. She tells Arthur there have been a series of break-ins and their landlord wants tenants to check the parking garage to see if anything's been stolen. Ben rushes downstairs and discovers his bike has been stolen. He scolds Arthur for forgetting to chain it up, "Arthur! I need to know I can count on you!" (This from a guy who took three years to mention he had a wife.) Arthur storms off to the bedroom and lies down. Ben apologizes, and Arthur expresses his anger at the way Ben treated him. He adds, if I ever get killed, you can cash in the insurance policy and buy a hundred bikes!" Ben responds by punching Arthur in the face, knocking him out cold. "That'll teach you not to say stupid things!" When Arthur wakes up, Ben promises to make it up to him by taking them on a honeymoon.
Victor is still troubled by Arthur's homosexuality, and asks Stan for help. Stan has just the thing for him: a special Holy Water recipe that will make Arthur straight -- if he can get Arthur to drink it. Victor goes to the apartment building, tapes the unlabeled bottle of Gay-Be-Gone to Arthur's door, with no note of any kind, and silently leaves. Arthur finds the bottle and shows it to Ben, who somehow correctly identifies exactly what it is and who it's from. He tosses it out, and they go on their honeymoon. Victor phones the apartment and gets an answering machine message that announces "We're on our honeymoon," which tips him off that the magic potion didn't work. This calls for a "final plan."
Victor goes to his church to have a talk with the priest, Father Rabin. The Father informs Victor that he can no longer be a member of the church. He explains, "It has to do with the fact that the members of the congregation don't want the brother of a gay man here! They're afraid you hold some sort of karma or deep-seated evil energy and -- well, quite frankly, I'm gonna have to ask you to stop offering your services to the church." Victor freaks out, pleading, noting that he's donated thousands of dollars to the church over the years. (I don't know what they spent it on, but it wasn't furniture or art. The Father's office consists of a tiny card table, two folding chairs, a cardboard cross and a crappy watercolor of Jesus.) But Father Rabin dismisses him, and Victor returns home to curse and beat up his mattress. He then tells Stan he plans to kill Arthur in order to improve his standing with the church. Because that's what Jesus would do, I guess. He goes back to the church and tells Father Rabin of his plan. The good Father tells him, "I know someone who can help you." We assume he's talking about a psychiatrist, but apparently he means a hit man.
Ben and Arthur are enjoying their honeymoon by the pool, until Ben gets a call from the hospital urging him to go back to work because two nurses quit. And the hospital decided to make an out-of-state phone call to someone on vacation rather than look for a closer replacement. They return. Victor pays Arthur a visit, telling him he's been kicked out of the church because of teh gay brother problem, and he's there to save Arthur's soul. He also reveals that he hired a private detective and learned that Arthur is selling porn (wait, wasn't he planning to go to college first?) Arthur responds by presenting him with a bottle of lube and a giant dildo, and tells Victor what to with it. You'd think Victor would be grateful that he's getting that stuff for free, but he's disgusted and leaves.
Arthur plans a trip to the store. Ben asks him to pick up Twinkies, Skittles and Soda. (From the looks of two of them, that sounds more like Arthur's shopping list.) Arthur leaves, driving the same car the Private Eye had. Victor and the unnamed hit man arrive, and go into the apartment. We don't see what they actually do, but they leave before Arthur returns to find Ben on the floor, bleeding. He calls an ambulance.
The next day, Victor gets a visit from Detective Moreen, who asks him what he knows about Ben. Victor replies, "Only that he's dead." The detective asks, "Who told you he was dead?" The detective then reveals that Ben is still alive, and brings the disappointed Victor in for questioning. Against all logic Victor is released. Detective Moreen then pays a visit to Father Rabin, asking him about Victor. He wants to know if Victor has any homicidal tendencies. Father Rabin covers for Victor. Oddly, nobody bothers to make any connection between the attack on Ben and the murder of the lawyer. In fact, the earlier murder is completely forgotten.
Arthur arrives at Victor's apartment. He breaks in, using a paper clip, and bugs Victor's phone. Before he can leave, Victor shows up, and threatens Arthur with a gun. He then confesses to the attempt on Ben's life. Arthur tells him he'll go to the police, but Victor isn't worried, scoffing, "Who are they going to believe?" (Um...probably Ben, the victim, who's still alive and could identify him?).
Arthur leaves and Victor calls Father Rabin claiming that Arthur roughed him up. Father Rabin assures him they'll "Take care of Ben and Arthur". Thanks to the bug, Arthur has listened in, and now knows about Father Rabin's involvement in the attack on Ben. He decides to pay the priest a visit. He poses as a new church member and asks for the address of a fellow parishioner. While the Father is distracted by writing it down, Arthur pulls a bottle of nail polish remover from his pocket, soaks a rag with it and sneaks up behind the priest, shoving the rag over his face until he passes out. He then rushes back to his car, pulls what appears to be a jug of water from the trunk, and returns. He empties the bottle on Father Rabin, strikes a match, drops it and makes a hasty exit. Very hasty, because there's no other way he could have escaped the firetrap he created in that tiny room. All this occurs in the middle of the day, and nobody sees or hears a thing.
Arthur returns home and gets a call from the hospital informing him Ben is ready to come home. Ben is still pretty groggy and can barely walk, so Arthur tucks him into bed, then goes to take a shower, to wash that dead priest out of his hair. Victor and the hit man arrive, but before they go inside, Victor sends the hit man off, and decides to fly solo. He rings the doorbell over and over. Ben is awakened and tells Arthur, who's still in the shower, to answer the door. After a few minutes, Ben rises to get it, first checking his face in the mirror to inspect the bruises over his eye (which aren't consistent with the injury from the attack). Despite the fact that the last time Ben answered the door, he was shot and nearly killed, he doesn't bother to ask Who's There?, or look through the peephole, he just opens the door. Victor shoots him, this time fatally, and Ben falls to the floor directly in front of the open door.
Arthur finally emerges from the bathroom (if you shoot or knife a clergyman, clean-up's a breeze, but the stench of cremated priest can linger, so he was forced to lather, rinse, and repeat) and finds Ben on the floor, dead He embraces the lifeless body, copping a feel before the actor can finally exit the set. Victor, standing over the two of them, tells Arthur, "I did him a favor -- I saved his soul." He then leads Arthur to the bedroom and fumes, "You know the church kicked me out because of you?" (Um, yes, from their earlier conversation.) He then produces a bottle of rubbing alcohol, soaks a rag with it and holds it against Arthurs face for a few seconds, rendering him unconscious (apparently this is some sort of family tradition. Probably when they were kids, and it was raining outside and they were bored with Candy Land or Hungry, Hungry Hippos, Victor and Arthur would grab a washcloth and Mom's cosmetics bag and take turns playing "Chloroform").
When Arthur awakens Victor asks him if he'll accept Jesus as his savior" With a gun to his head, Arthur decides this might be a good time to say yes. Victor orders Arthur to strip and drags hm to the bathtub, where he turns on the water, and baptizes Arthur in the name of the Father, the Gun and the Holy Spigot. He then brings Arthur back the bedroom, smothers him with the rag to knock out again, and goes back into the living room, exhausted, setting the gun on a table nearby. Arthur wakes up and walks down the hallway. He finds a gun in a nearby drawer (Tammy's gun from her previous visit, I think) and enters the living room, stroking himself, asking Victor if he'd like to have sex with him. Apparently he's so drugged out he thinks he's in Scarface. Victor responds with the one line in the movie that makes sense, "Arthur, put some clothes on, you're embarrassing yourself."
Arthur fires the gun, killing an innocent coffee table. Victor then pleads with him not to kill him, that with Ben dead, he could collect the insurance (forgetting that the insurance policy was on Arthur's life not Ben's). But Arthur advances. Victor fires at Arthur (using the gun Arthur was holding), hitting Arthur in the chest. Arthur reels around against the couch, and Victor fires the gun over and over, riddling Arthur's back with what look like grape juice stains. Arthur finds Victor's gun on the couch, and, with his last ounce of over-acting, kills Victor before keeling over himself.
The credits roll, accompanied by a midi of Pachelbel's "Canon In D," or as it's listed in the credits, "Pachelbel's Cannon." (The musical selections during the opening and closing credits are the only evidence of talent in the entire movie.)
As I said, the #5 ranking in the Bottom 50 is unfair. I think it's much worse than the other four movies ranked above it. So I'd like to call upon all of you to visit the IMDb entry on this movie, and give it the one star rating it so richly deserves.
Let's get its score lower, folks. If you want to be fair and actually see the damn thing, it is currently on YouTube, uploaded in 11 segments. (Trust me, you don't need to watch them all). Let's bring this movie to The Top of The Bottom!