[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. NUTS! opens today in limited release.]
As long as there is pain, there will be someone offering a cure. As long as there are doctors, there will also be quacks. Dr. John Romulus Brinkley might be the most powerful quack of the 20th century, and he finally gets his due—both for good and ill—in Penny Lane’s witty, insightful, and clever documentary NUTS! Lane primarily relies on various styles of animation to tell Brinkley’s story, but more importantly, she frames that story on Clement Wood’s biography The Life of a Man: A Biography of John R. Brinkley. Using this as the narrative framework almost makes you feel like you’ve stumbled into a museum dedicated to Brinkley’s greatness, but if you’re patient with NUTS!, you’ll get a reveal worthy of a true swindler.
NUTS! is outlandish from the start as we learn about Brinkley, who came from humble origins, making his name from the claim that he had successful grafted goat testicles into the scotums of impotent human males, and as a result, those men became virile and were able to have children. That alone would be enough for a bonkers story, and to the film’s credit, we don’t dismiss it outright even though we should, especially when Lane slyly doesn’t use any of her modern day experts to comment on how this kind of xenotransplantation is impossible. Instead, Lane pivots to how Brinkley built an empire from these transplants, especially in the burgeoning field of radio where he was able to hock his wares, phony expertise, and brand throughout the modern U.S.
For most of NUTS! the documentary feels bizarrely one-sided, and t’s almost shameful that Lane seems to be celebrating the triumphs of a quack and how much money he made selling fake cures throughout the U.S. We’re left to wonder why she would work from an oddly subjective biography, one that revels in the misfortunes of Brinkley’s enemies, but then speak to modern historians who provide a basis of objective truth. Throw in the different animation styles for every chapter, and it would be difficult to stay on board if the story weren’t so entertaining.
But then the twist finally comes, and I’m still not sure if I should have seen it the whole time or if it’s something that’s meant to surprise the audience. On the one hand, Lane withholds plenty of evidence from us, and yet she never keeps away the key piece—that a guy claimed surgically implanted goat testicles can cure infertility in impotent human males. Should it really be a surprise that he was dishonest in other aspects of his life? The film goes meta to make this commentary, and it’s a bold move, but it absolutely works since it transforms the tale of a legendary quack into one that’s far more telling and permanent.
The whole “goat balls transplant” thing ends up being the least interesting aspect about NUTS! because we see how Brinkley used not only human desire to his advantage, but had the foresight on the power of long-range advertising via radio to make himself millionaire during The Great Depression of all times. Even when people hardly had any money, they saw fit to give it to a champion conman. NUTS! takes what could be a grim tale and finds not only dark and outlandish humor, but the immediacy of this story.
Brinkley liked to compare himself to Lincoln, Shakespeare, and Edison, and in his own way he was. He was the Lincoln/Shakespeare/Edison of gas station boner pills.