The idea of a documentary following a guy who orders a wife through the mail is a good one. There may even be one on the subject – the whole thing is so fascinating. But a documentary like that might have a hard time getting a Jose Canseco cameo, unlike the mockumentary Mail Order Wife.
Director Andrew Gurland funds Queens-native Adrian Martin’s efforts to order a Burmese beauty through a catalog, in exchange for complete access. When Lichi, the lovely bride, arrives, things quickly go wrong. Adrian is a boor and worse, and Lichi finds refuge at Andrew’s place. When those two start sleeping together the project begins to fall apart and things only get weirder.
Mail Order Wife is astonishingly cruel, and I say that in a good way. I’ve lived in Ozone Park, Queens, and I recognize the shabby suburbanism of his block, right down to the Madonna in the front yard and the cement backyard. The first part of the film is obviously targeting Adrian’s lower middle class lifestyle – he writes to his impending bride that he works in “security and building management”, which means he’s a doorman. Fat and stupid, Adrian (played by Adiran Martinez with some really great comic timing) is the ultimate ugly New Yorker.
Andrew’s the opposite, it seems. His large apartment in Brooklyn (the Heights, maybe?) is filled with artwork and light and space where Adrian’s walls had black velvet paintings and his rooms were dingy and cramped. But it soon becomes obvious that Andrew’s just as much of a complete asshole as Adrian. When Lichi takes refuge at his place he sleeps with her whenever his girlfriend isn’t over, and then he makes her cook for his friends. Earlier Andrew had criticized Adrian for treating Lichi like a maid (one hilarious scene has Adrian teaching her to make chili, and his main instruction to the non-English speaker is “Keep stirring.” He writes it on a post-it note over the stove), but Andrew’s no better.
And in the spirit of true nastiness, Lichi’s not much better a person than either of the two of them. There’s a great moment when Lichi (played by the really beautiful Eugenia Yuan, who is starring next in Memoirs of a Geisha), having divorced Adrian and married Andrew goes on a shopping binge – for pigs. She gets every kind of pig-related item she can and stuffs the carefully yuppie apartment with them. There’s more, but to tell you now would be to give away some of the film’s best moments.
The thing with a nasty movie is that there needs to be a line that’s walked, and Mail Order Wife sometimes crosses that line. While it’s fine that all three of the main characters are awful, useless human beings, there is a scene where Adrian essentially sexually abuses Lichi that’s beyond the pale. Not in terms that the scene shouldn’t be in a movie but in terms that we’re asked to accept him back later in the movie. If the abuse, which Adrian tapes, was played funnier (what a sentence to type) it might have been more palatable. As it is the scene sort of stops the movie cold, and Adrian goes from pathetic loser to predatory animal. In the last act he’s back as a loser but it’s hard to shake the idea that maybe this movie should have turned into an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
The mockumentary is becoming a genre unto itself these days. Last year I enjoyed Incident at Loch Ness, from writer Zack Penn, and much like that one I think Mail Order Wife works best if you don’t know it’s a mockumentary. The first fifteen minutes, up until a disastrous doctor visit, feels like it could be completely real, and when things get weird and nasty it’s funny to imagine audiences being completely confused.
Maybe it makes me less hip, but I think this might have worked better as a straight narrative film. Once you get past the point when the proceedings devolve beyond any realism the film is still hampered by the narrative conventions of the documentary. As the third act turns into a completely wacky revenge scenario I found myself wishing that Martin and Gurland – a tremendously funny mismatched comic team – could have been set free in an environment that allowed their characters to behave less realistically (and that’s saying something, since the revenge scheme is pretty damn unrealistic). The chemistry these guys have reminded me of Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, except that neither character has a single redeemable trait.
Mail Order Wife is a darkly funny film that hits more often than it misses with three great performances ground the movie even as it spirals into ever stranger and darker places. It’s a small film with a very limited release, but if it comes near your town it’s worth checking out.
8.0 out of 10