The Austin Chronicle

Raising Buchanan

Not rated, 96 min. Directed by Bruce Dellis. Starring Amanda Melby, Rene Auberjonois, Cathy Shim, Terence Bernie Hines, M. Emmet Walsh, Jennifer Pfalzgraff, Steve Briscoe.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 15, 2020

Lincoln. Washington. FDR. The arguments about who the best president of all time is are long, nuanced, and stir diverse opinions. Hell, somewhere out there, there's probably a historian who'll make a startling and convincing defense of James A. Garfield's six-and-a-half months in the White House.

Yet there's been little dissent that the worst was James Buchanan: A leader so inept in his handling of Secession that even revisionist pretend Confederates don't claim him as their own. And so it is with Raising Buchanan, a sweet and strange low-budget comedy about nobody really wanting Buchanan's disinterred corpse. Rachel (Melby, delivering every line with tart quirkiness) doesn't really want his body, even if she's the one that convinces her friends to make off with the corpse while it's being shipped across the country for its final burial. What she wants is the $100,000 she thinks she can ... well, it's not quite extortion, and you can't kidnap a dead body. Anyway, she thinks that she can get the Federal government to pay her enough money to save her house. That's only an issue because she's not getting the dead body she actually wants, which is that of her father. Well, that sounds more heartless than she is, because the reality is that her dad (the great character actor Emmett Walsh, wonderful as always in a tiny role) has been in a hospice for a year, and she was depending on his insurance to get her out of debt. So what's a doughnut shop manager with a bunch of debt and no good plans to do, except make off with a body?

Except that the corpse comes with an additional fixture: the spirit of Buchanan, given a cantankerous charm by the late Rene Auberjonois in one of his very last roles. He's less interested in the fate of his cadaver than he is in discussing questions of motivation, reputation, and how a lot of good can be wiped away by enough bad. That's when the debut feature of comedy shorts creator Bruce Dellis flies, as Auberjonois and Melby find sympathy for their imperfect characters, and squeeze every drop of comedy and pathos out of a whip-smart, high-speed script filled with digressions and callbacks. There's a studied silliness that can only be described as Coenesque, much of it built around a band of hardcore ventriloquists, headed by the egotistical Eroll (Briscoe). It's all absurd, which adds to the charm, knowing that everyone here (even the 15th president of the United States) is vaguely ridiculous, yet with some redemptive depths. We're all flawed, Dellis says, but there are worse things to be.

Plus, as characters note in a repeated refrain, at least now Buchanan isn't alone at the bottom.

Raising Buchanan is available on VOD now.

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