Joe Bob's Drive-In: Bitters and Blue Ruin

By JOE BOB BRIGGS, Drive-In Movie Critic of Grapevine, Texas  |  Oct. 3, 2002 at 6:07 PM
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Okay, let's start with the title: "Bitters and Blue Ruin." I have no idea what it means, and I've already watched the flick. In fact, I kept forgetting the title while I was screening it. "Bitter Blue Rum"? "Ruined Blue Bitters"? "Ruined Bitter Blues"?

Independent B-movie filmmaking rule number one: you have to understand the whole movie from the title. Ahem.

Also, they forgot to put a plot in this one -- whoops! -- or else the plot is so complicated that I can't understand it, which is two sides of the same doubloon.

Normally the absence of a plot doesn't bother me so long as you have a few exploding heads, busty babes, motor vehicle chases or shower scenes. But this one has no bullets and no nookie. Violating independent B-movie filmmaking rule number two:

Any girl introduced as a floozy, femme fatale, flaky girlfriend or mysterious stranger must make the sign of the triple-snouted twin-humped aardvark. It's in the Constitution.

AND rule number three: When a firearm is discharged, you MUST cut to the victim clutching his chest in agonizing pain and writhing on the ground as blood squibs pop all over his body. (All the gunplay in this one is off-camera.)

What I think they were going for here is Quirky. Quirky is OK for a scene or two, but an entire movie devoted to Quirky ends up making you feel like you've just watched six hours of dinner theater while staring at your potato salad.

"Bitters and Blue Ruin" comes out of Philadelphia, where first-time filmmakers Scott Elwell and Sean Kelley shot in black-and-white to get the retro film-noir look of 1947 Philly. Instead of gangsters, though, they use psychology professors, graduate students, deans and failed film actors who TALK like gangsters. (Beats me.)

This may, in fact, be the first film noir to revolve around the thrillingly suspenseful theme of writer's block. Will brilliant renegade psychologist Roddy Schiffman be able to score an illicit blue liquid drug that frees him up so he can tap out his breakthrough book on pathological narcissism on an old Underwood typewriter? Or will he be stopped by a portly dean and a rival faculty member who think he's an alcoholic menace?

I realize it's a comedy, but where's the sultry client with a guilty secret? Where's the dead body in the vestibule? Where's the partner who gets shot by the mob IN the vestibule? Where is the mob? Where, for that matter, is the vestibule?

It's like a series of comedy sketches that don't hang together too well and are mostly full of brainless chatter that goes in 19 different directions. At the 2-hour, 11 minute mark -- and the movie is far from over -- two of the main characters sit in a Tiki bar called Flame of Fiji, sipping fruity cocktails and discussing the philosophy of religion. Save me!

They rounded up some fairly decent Philadelphia actors, especially Richard Bravo, who plays the dyspeptic carbine-loving dean with a sort of Al Goldstein gusto, and Bruce Wilson, as the absinthe-quaffing hero of our story. He's got the fedora. He's got the tailored suits. He's got the sour-faced, slightly constipated look of forties gangsters.

In fact, the most remarkable thing about the flick is that it DOES look like a film noir, right down to the seedy hotel rooms, taverns and Tiki restaurants. The cast is short on the distaff side, and the hookers are a little long in the tooth for their profession, but they got the costumes right and some of the patter.

There are 32 actors listed in the opening titles, making it necessary for me to point out independent B-movie filmmaking rule number four:

There are precisely FOUR main characters in a film noir: the strong guy, the weak guy, the gal who exploits the weak guy, and the cop who's trying to hunt down the killer. Everything else is like trying to put caviar on a Krispy Kreme donut.

Oh yeah, I just invented rule number five:

Never use a professor of any kind as the star of anything except a mummy movie.

Okay, boys, nice technical work. Now get back over to West Philly and try again.

Two dead bodies. No breasts. Two lame fistfights. One bar fracas. Decent jazz score. Off-camera cigar-cutter torture. Sausage-carving. Vacuum cleaner Fu.

Drive-In Academy Award nominations for Jeffrey Bravo, as the goofy grad student in a newboy's cap who says "He ain't the boss of me!"; Eric Lyden, as the official photographer to a vain faded film star, for making movies with no actual movie camera in his hands; James Daniel

Boyle, as the blowhard thespian who was "supposed to be the next Gary Cooper," for saying "I'm sure they saw my glowing review in the Sacramento Bee"; James Gioffreda, one of the finest midget actors working today; Bruce Wilson, as the drunken undercover psychology professor who goes in search of a miracle drug, for saying "The world's got my loins in a vise!"; and John Bravo, as the nose-bandaged Professor Slavko P. Slavko;

One star.

Joe Bob says check it out.

"Bitters and Blue Ruin" website:

(To reach Joe Bob, go to or email him at Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.)

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