To see "Call Me Lucky" is to have a new hero. That's the kind of respect its subject commands.
The new Type 55 documentary maps the legacy of a Skaneateles-grown comedy pioneer and social crusader in moving detail. Through the lens of one famous friend, director Bobcat Goldthwait, and the witness of many more — Patton Oswalt, Marc Maron, Margaret Cho — it's a life-affirming secret you've been whispered by happy chance.
It's the secret of not only an immense man, but the secret that made him so immense.
It's the secret of Barry Crimmins.
He won't be a secret for long, though. Early in the film Cho says, "I feel like people should claim him more." And they will. Come awards season, I wouldn't be surprised if "Call Me Lucky" rides its buzz from the Sundance Film Festival in January to several best documentary prizes, even the Academy Award. I wouldn't be surprised if Crimmins gets the respect he deserves.
Of course, as the movie makes clear, Crimmins already has plenty. He gave one of the first big breaks to Goldthwait and "SpongeBob SquarePants" voice Tom Kenny, then both teenagers, at Under the Stone in Skaneateles. Then Crimmins moved to Boston in 1979 and started the Ding Ho and Stitches comedy clubs, where he gave early breaks to a much longer list of future stars: Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone, Lenny Clarke, Kevin Meaney, Dana Gould and more.
All the while, Crimmins attracted underground prestige as one of America's first major political comedians. Before there was Bill Hicks, before there was Bill Maher, there was Crimmins blaring, "There's a 'struggle for the soul of the Republican Party?' What are they using? Tweezers and an electron microscope?" A cigar and/or beer in hand, his Elliott Gould-meets-John Belushi brow glazed with sweat, he was his own ferocious presence in those Boston clubs, those smoky '80s laboratories of what stand-up comedy would become.
But Crimmins didn't just snipe. He spent as much time and effort making the world better as he did excoriating its worst. He didn't just scream to end America's wars on stage, he stood with Cindy Sheehan when she protested at President Bush's ranch in Texas. He didn't just target online child pornographers from his perch, he collected evidence of their crimes and went to the police. Then the FBI. Then Congress.
It was shortly after Crimmins testified about that issue on Capitol Hill in 1995 — shortly after he accused America Online of profiting off those terrible images as an executive sat inches away — that Goldthwait got the idea for "Call Me Lucky."
When I spoke to him for a feature I wrote about Crimmins and the movie last month, Goldthwait said making people more aware of his friend's extraordinary life partly motivated the creation of "Call Me Lucky." What motivates its success, however, is Goldthwait's ability to be both a friend and a director as the film dictates. He's compassionate but sweeping, a storyteller and a supporting character. From the dozens of interviews he conducted he always plucks the right compliment, the right anecdote to sketch Crimmins in perfect relief: The brother, the friend, the firebrand.
Goldthwait's skill as a documentarian is nowhere more evident than his approach to the darkness in Crimmins' life.
He structures the movie chronologically, outlining Crimmins' story in the abstract before zooming in beautifully on Skaneateles and starting from the beginning. But he deftly structures the movie around the traumatic sexual abuse Crimmins suffered at his North Syracuse home when he was 4. Early in the film the director teases the story's telling by Crimmins' sister Mary Jo, but he doesn't return to her until much later, the dramatic climax. Goldthwait's artistic choice has the effect of snapping an extraordinary puzzle piece into its psychosocial place — the Original Injustice in the life of an avenger.
Goldthwait still locates Crimmins' resentment early in "Call Me Lucky" by recounting his service as an altar boy under the Rev. Thomas Neary at St. Mary's of the Lake. After giving the boy the "old pedophile shoulder rub" and getting an elbow to the gut in return, Neary went about making Crimmins' life miserable, he recalls. The episode plants in the ground Crimmins' lifelong cynicism toward the Catholic Church in particular and authority in general — as well as his daily tweets to Pope Francis, asking to be excommunicated.
However, the rest of that story is saved for later. While examining Crimmins' own abuse, Goldthwait introduces Charles Bailey, who not only claims he was raped by Neary, but that he's been contacted by more than 30 others who also were. Bailey, we learn, is just one of countless abuse survivors to whom Crimmins has lent his support. And with that little bit of rearranging, Goldthwait bridges the movie toward, ultimately, its most urgent message: If we uphold each other as much as ourselves, we can get through anything.
Because, as Crimmins says, "You go through a problem, not around it."
When the credits roll, the note isn't sorrow. It's not rage. It's gratitude, resolve, and, yes, fortune. It would have been easy for Goldthwait to let the muck swallow his movie, just as it would have been easy for Crimmins to let it swallow his life. But neither does. And now we're lucky enough to share in both.
"Call Me Lucky" is currently screening at select film festivals. For updates on where you can see it, follow @callmeluckyfilm on Twitter.