Friday, January 25, 2019

Slamdance 2019: 'The Professional: A Stevie Blatz Story' (2018) Movie Review

Documentaries take many forms. They play with constraints and push the bounds of what the genre can do, shine a light on injustice or hidden histories, examine fascinating stories, and much more. Then there are those about wing-nuts, singular weirdos who stand out for one reason or another. It’s into this latter category that Daniel Labarbera’s The Professional: A Stevie Blatz Story falls. Straightforward subject-driven pieces like this are only as interesting as their the people they focus on, and in Stevie Blatz, Labarbara found a fascinating front man.

As you likely infer from the title, The Professional follows Stevie Blatz. And Stevie is something. He’s many things, actually: a DJ, a face painter, a disastrous stand-up comedian; he dresses like a bunny at children’s parties, rents out a homemade photobooth, and runs both a lawn care and snow removal business; at times, he even busks on the streets of New York City, attempting and often failing to perform magic tricks for small crowds of annoyed but curious passersby. He’s terrible at everything he does, but has become something of a minor local cult figure in his Eastern Pennsylvania town. But god bless him, he’s giddy about every last endeavor.

At his core, Stevie is an entrepreneur. Living in his mother’s basement, he runs multiple businesses, digging all of them into financial holes, losing clients left and right, over extending himself at every turn. He’s always running, always moving, tripping, blaming it on other people, and getting back up to dust himself off and do it again. But no matter what, he’s game for the next adventure and the next experience, even if it’s humiliating. The hustle is real.

Stevie’s a boundless font of enthusiasm and optimism in the face of great odds. He has a horrific relationship with his mother, who is also his business partner in multiple ventures, and strained relationships with his few friends. But he also always has a smile on his face and a sunny outlook on tomorrow. Labarbera checks in with him over time and presents a slice-of-life narrative. The film does get a bit repetitive in the middle—every time we see Stevie, they ask the same questions only to find little has changed. Eventually, you sense the filmmaker’s frustration—at a certain point, the man behind the camera starts pushing, almost antagonizing Stevie trying to get a rise. 

Again, documentaries that focus on a single person better have a truly interesting individual at their center, and The Professional certainly does. As maddening as he can be to watch—whether you want to scream at Stevie to get his shit together or hug him and tell him it’ll be okay—it’s hard to look away. 

Is Stevie a huckster, a hustler, a lunatic, or delusional? Quite possibly all of that and more. But he’s also inspiring. Whatever there is to say about him, you can never say Stevie Blatz didn’t shoot his shot. He drinks deep at the fountain of life—at one point, he learns to C-walk in a park in NYC, because why the hell not? Ultimately, The Professional is about striving for something greater, about getting up when you get knocked down, and about living the fullest life you can. Late in the film, Stevie sums it up with a single line: “Life is just really weird and interesting.” [Grade: B]

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