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Tucker Max gets them gasping at Sundance
Coarse author promotes depressing comedy
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Max: "Sometimes I do cross the line."
Max: "Sometimes I do cross the line."
Credit:Matt Danzig

Tucker Max knows what he's doing. The blogger, author and, now, screenwriter and film producer doesn't sidestep critics who say he promotes rape culture. He embraces them. Protests have accompanied the nationwide bus tour promoting his new film, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, which opens Sept. 25. What has Team Tucker Max done in response? Posted pictures of the protesters and their placards ("Men against Tucker Max," "Take a stance against sexism") on his Flickr page.

There were no protesters at Sunday night's screening of the new film, which took place at Sundance Cinemas. There was an enthusiastic crowd of men and women in their 20s. Before the screening, Max, 33, bantered with audience members, insulted them, handed out beer pong sets.

Co-written by Max and Nils Parker, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell is, promotional materials note, "based on the shocking, ridiculous and hilarious real-life adventures of Tucker Max." The film follows Max's book of the same name, which compiled stories from his web site. In the loosely plotted movie, a smug character named Tucker Max (Matt Czuchry) drinks, has sex with women and visits a strip club with friends.

The movie's raunchy humor comes partly at the expense of disabled people, African Americans and gays. But it especially comes at the expense of women. At one point a man says to a woman, "Get away from me or I'm going to carve another fuck hole in your torso." The Sundance audience gasped at the line, then tittered. It wasn't the only time there were gasps.

Which is not to say anyone was surprised. Max's coarseness is surely why his fans like him.

Tucker Max is making a career of shocking people. He appears to be having a great time.

His shtick depresses me.

"That line goes overboard, and it's supposed to," notes Max. He says it points out an important truth about the character, Drew (Jesse Bradford), whose girlfriend has cheated on him. "For a while his bitterness makes sense, but then it devolves into toxicity." According to Max, it's important to consider the line in context.

I heard it in context, though, and it made me recoil. So did lines like "Your whole gender is wired for whoredom."

Shock is a time-honored showbiz technique. Well-regarded entertainers have long made careers of being offensive, from George Carlin and Lenny Bruce to Richard Pryor and Hollywood's Farrelly brothers. Before he settled into avuncular safeness, director and indie icon John Waters devoted his talents to making triumphantly repellent films. "To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about," Waters writes in his 1981 book called, yes, Shock Value.

And let's face it: not everyone agrees on what's shocking. Three years ago the comedian Margaret Cho got a giant laugh at the Orpheum when she said, "The new pope fucking sucks." Certainly it's an offensive line for many, and it's not really even a joke. But I don't recall anyone leaving the downtown Madison theater in protest.

"It takes an artist to be raw and authentic," says Max. "Being emotionally honest is hard to do, and the ones that do are ridiculously controversial. Howard Stern just told the truth and became king of all media."

Like Stern, Tucker Max is a savvy entertainer. He's also highly educated, having attended the University of Chicago and Duke University School of Law. I went to the University of Chicago at the same time he did, and I recognize him as a particular U of C type: smart and well read, certainly, but also aloof, glib.

You can see that in the movie. Although it has no shortage of fart humor, it also features jokes that make historical and literary references: to Mary Queen of Scots, Vichy France, Jonathan Swift. The film doesn't engage these topics. It just riffs on them nervously. A certain kind of University of Chicago undergraduate does that. As a University of Chicago undergraduate, I did that.

The film has exuberant moments. "My stuff is written from a position of joy and happiness," Max says.

But mostly it seems cruel and angry. Especially it seems angry at women, in ways that made me sink into my chair. "Fat girls aren't people," the Tucker Max character says at one point.

Anger isn't inherently a bad thing. Jonathan Swift was angry. But he used anger to promote reform. I don't sense a reform impulse in I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell. Still, when I press Max on the subject of anger, he deftly turns the conversation in an uplifting direction.

"I think that there's anger at people who tell me what I should do with my life," he says. If you follow Max's career, you'll recognize this as his motivational message, which he delivered at Ohio State University earlier this year.

"I've always believed my life is mine to live," he tells me. "I achieved the highest levels, checked off all the boxes" -- elite undergraduate university, elite law school. "And I hated that life, and I rejected it, and I walked away."

It's a theme Max returns to when I ask him about other disquieting aspects of his work. Won't young people put themselves at risk if they follow the example of his work and drink to excess? "The way to emulate me is to live the life you live," he says. "The message is, be who you want to be."

I can hear the message when Tucker Max articulates it in an interview. But I have a hard time spotting it in the film. Regardless, the message doesn't erase the parts of Max's work that are cringe-inducing.

Mostly his work makes me sad. On his web site there is a gleeful story in which he has sex with a woman and, beforehand, arranges for a friend to film the act from the closet. She discovers the friend and the camera and is humiliated. It isn't funny.

"Sometimes I do cross the line," Max says.

That's true. Maybe he hates women? "I don't. I love them."

I don't get it. But I don't think the point is for me to get it. Tucker Max's young fans revel in the abuse. I know. I watched them do it.

They might grow out of it. I wonder if Tucker Max will.

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