What do you get when you cross the clickbait sensibilities of TikTok with the winking ironies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? A confused predilection for the dopamine high of instant, ephemeral virality which, once achieved, only begets more rushes, more clicks, more highs. If such is the sorry state of contemporary political and social media engagement, then Citizen Weiner embodies it wholesale. Contrary to the pomp and prestige fostered upon it by its titular association with a burgeoning genre of political activism documentaries, this overlong and undercooked skit has neither a cohesive structure nor any self-awareness going for it. Such a description may confound the viewer: after all, hasn’t the film’s incessant staginess in providing and justifying its context of production — New York City Council, early 2021, late-pandemic stage — demonstrated precisely its recognition of what it’s trying to do and what it’s good for?
A closer look at Citizen Weiner, however, puts the endeavor into uncomely perspective. Director Daniel Robbins, known for his 2018 horror feature Pledge, reunites with that movie’s writer and co-star Zach Weiner to document the latter’s run for City Council as a literal novice and nobody. Having dropped out of college and without much in the way of acting gigs, Zach suits up for electoral politics with not much of a pitch, beyond the desire to take some form of action on the ground. He enlists a small team of campaign staff, most of whom we see haranguing disinterested New Yorkers, distributing leaflets while dressed in hotdog suits, and commiserating over their perpetual lack of success, measured both in votes and viewer engagement. The post of Communications Director, going to TikTok influencer Sarah Coffey, offers perhaps the most insight into the psychology and skill-sets of the half-jokingly self-styled underdog team. But even its foregrounding is suspect when, midway through Citizen Weiner, we reach the juicy zenith: anyone terminally online during the Covid years, this writer included, would have likely come across the flashy headline of a City Council candidate’s BDSM sex tape being leaked online. (Said candidate’s name: Weiner.) Despite their best efforts, the team doesn’t really manage to propel their cause or perpetuate their infamy, even as they resort to several underhanded tactics virtually considered scriptural by U.S. media standards.
The punchline, then, is little more than unabashedly narcissistic shilling and a riff on the public fetishization of private kinks — just like how Tarantino enjoys feet, Weiner’s a sucker for dominant women, which raises more than a few eyebrows about his working relationship with a much taller and less neurotic Coffey. If this really is about how identifying political figures by their idiosyncrasies instead of their ideologies stymies genuine citizen engagement, it doesn’t translate in the slightest. On the contrary, Robbins and co. seem to be gunning for cheap laughs and a part-sincere, part-holier-than-thou bit whose ambivalent formula has flourished exceedingly in the post-mumblecore cultural desert of cosmopolitan America. In getting the most bang for the buck with its flashy, quick-bite cutaways, Citizen Weiner also unveils the kind of vanity that’s all-too-easily smuggled under the cover of the shitpost; ever since Borat, comedians have found it ever convenient to flaunt their oversized personalities, and in our case, this comes back to haunt Zach’s amiable but tense relationship with his mother, whom he sometimes treats as a cleaning lady in order to boost his own social image. Regrettably, not much about the election itself gets covered — not Gale Brewer, the incumbent geriatric powerhouse, who’s relegated to a mere face — and when we do see Zach’s grassroots efforts, it’s largely limited to his collaboration with a tween CEO and entrepreneur, whose own image comes uncomfortably close to liberal sob-story sympathy. One almost imagines that a more effective (and entertaining) documentary would ditch the campaign and the self-satisfaction, and showcase Weiner’s wiener video in full: screams, hot wax, and all.
Published as part of Slamdance Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 1.