by Brendan Foley
Spoiler Warning: While the life of Barry Crimmins is largely public knowledge, Call Me Lucky treats his past and present as a reveal. If you wish to know nothing about Barry Crimmins before seeing this film, do not read past this sentence.
Trigger Warning: Due to the subject matter of Call Me Lucky, people who have strong emotional reactions to discussions of sexual violence should not read this article.
Call Me Lucky broke me. It was no one moment either, no single reveal or utterance that started the flood. It was the accumulation of grief and horror that did it, and I spent most of the last hour of the film with angry tears running down my cheeks. At one point I was staring at the screen with my fists clenched, eyes wet, chanting “Fuck” over and over again.
I wanted so badly to stop the film. No, more than that. I wanted to reach into the film and stop the voices from having to speak. I wanted to rip apart time to unmake the trauma, to make it all better again, to stop tragedy before it ever had the chance to happen.
But that’s not an option, is it?
You will be forgiven for not knowing who Barry Crimmins is. Despite being well-regarded in comedy circles, Crimmins never put out an album, never recorded a stand-up special, and never made the jump to regular television appearances. His IMDB page has one acting credit, and the credit is from 1987.
But comedians know who Barry Crimmins is. He was Bill Hicks before Bill Hicks, Bill Maher before Bill Maher, and you didn’t want to punch his lights out the way you do Maher. When Barry Crimmins took the stage, his routine could range from wild-eyed absurdism to raging political rhetoric. While he himself never took off to mainstream success, he helped foster a comedy scene in Boston that launched the likes of Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone, and Bobcat Goldthwait.
Goldthwait directed Call Me Lucky (and by this late date, if you still only know Goldthwait as the screaming guy from the Police Academy movies, you are ignorant to one of the most highly regarded independent filmmakers in America right now) and the slow reveal of Crimmins’ history mirrors what it must have felt like to get to know Barry and peel back the layers of that big, black-bearded onion.
First there’s the rush, the kinetic sensation of joy at meeting such a wildly intelligent, bombastic presence. Call Me Lucky is loaded with talking heads from everyone from Patton Oswalt to David Cross to Margaret Cho and countless more, all relating legendary bits of Crimmins lore, both on and off the stage. A true force of nature, Crimmins is spoken of less as a fellow comic, and more as a whirling dervish of humor and humanity. There’s not a bad word to be found about the man in this film, and the talking heads and archival footage is strong enough that if this had simply been a love letter to an underappreciated master of an underappreciated form, it would be well worth watching.
But there’s a rage at the edges of the film, a melancholy, and it is inextricable from the laughs and the cheerful memories of drunken nights and LSD-laced parties. Crimmins’s act grows harsher and harsher as time goes on, and his friends note that the professional comedian has stopped even trying to be funny. No one could figure out what was setting Barry off, why his usual tempestuous nature was giving way to a rage that was all but choking him.
And then one night, he went onstage and told the whole truth.
Barry Crimmins was raped when he was four years old. Repeatedly. Brutally. Were it not for the intervention of his sister, it is likely that he would have died.
The revelation is like a bomb going off in the middle of the film, leaving many professional talkers literally speechless.
As Barry was struggling to cope with his own suffering and survival, he began to search the nascent Internet for fellow survivors and instead came across AOL chatrooms loaded with pedophiles comparing notes and trading child porn. When Barry tried to get AOL’s attention, he found that the company was happy ignoring, and tacitly profiting off of, the abuse.
So he took action, and suddenly Call Me Lucky becomes a Capra movie, as Crimmins takes his crusade all the way to Congress and began pushing for the legislation that is still in place to day to catch and prosecute kiddie-porn peddling scum.
It’s an amazing story, but Goldthwait’s true triumph is less in how he documents the incidents of Barry Crimmins’ life, but in how he focuses on the man’s spirit.
And here’s where the weeping comes in. Because, see, when you read about shit like this on the Internet, or in a newspaper, or when you some dry recitation of statistics come tumbling out of a pundit’s mouth on some news show, that’s all it is: statistics. And it’s awful, and it’s sickening, and your heart goes out to the victims of abuse, men or women, but there’s a remove between you and the reality.
Bobcat Goldthwait breaks that remove. He forces you to take a nice long look at the effect of abuse, effects still being felt decades after the crime, decades after the perpetrator died. He crafts the film in such a way as to make you love Barry, to make sure you feel for him and empathize with him, and then the film shows you the hurt that this man you have come to love has to deal with every day. And the hurt of other survivors. All survivors. And the film makes you feel that hurt, and it is fucking agonizing. There’s nothing I wanted to do more than plug my ears and shut my eyes and pretend, fucking pretend, that this wasn’t happening, that this doesn’t happen, that there can’t be this much cruelty in this fucking world as what these kids had to endure and what these adults must continue to suffer through.
But we can’t pretend. We have to bear witness. And we have to try and use that pain and build something better out of it.
That’s what Barry Crimmins did. For a man who despises organized religion and regularly tweets the Pope demanding excommunication, Crimmins displays a Christ-like attitude of forgiveness to the people who hurt him, and he’s spent much of his life reaching out to fellow survivors and trying to help them.
I urge you to see Call Me Lucky. It’s available on VOD right now, and a more powerful cinematic experience you will not have this year. It is a film which examines the darkest and most appalling of human behaviors, and yet which still finds the light of human resiliency and empathy, and our power to carry on through the bleakest of nights.
Call Me Lucky is making a limited run at theaters and festivals across the country, as well as available on demand.