The (Un)making of an Activist Couple
Just in time for election season comes Ron and Laura Take Back America, a ragged mockumentary written and directed by Janice Markham and Mel England, who star in the title roles. A few years ago when the duo conceived of a satire about a conservative couple who become anti-healthcare reform activists, the country was already polarized, with many on the right espousing the vague “take back America” rhetoric that continues to be popular despite its meaninglessness. Now, in this presidential election year, with contentious battles for both parties’ nominations, and (especially!) the emergence of Donald Trump as demagogue of the disaffected right, emotions are running extremely high, and campaign oratory dangerously loose. The sentiments expressed in and by Ron and Laura… have become all too familiar.
While Ron (England) and Laura (Markham) Grawsill are classic ring-wing prototypes – religious, angry at the government, intolerant of homosexuality, etc. etc.—they’re also somewhat sympathetic, in that their issues with health insurance and Ron’s mother’s dementia, for example, are real and crippling. They also try, in their own clueless way, to be open to certain new ideas. We laugh at the familiar, fumbling, not-quite-logical rants (and they spout it all, from blather about illegals taking away their insurance to concern about death panels and “commie care”), but they’re not quite cartoon cutouts.
We’re shown how the Bakersfield, California, couple first become aware of the issue of healthcare reform in late 2000s; their activism starts with support for John Zackie, the CEO of “Whole Fruits,” who is anti-Obamacare. When Ron and Laura take offense at how they are portrayed in a local TV news segment, they decide to make their own documentary, helmed by an amateur filmmaker who went to school with their son.
Initially so niaïve that they’re shocked when confronted by Obamacare supporters (“watch your purse,” admonishes Ron), their enthusiasm is boundless. There are frustrations: Laura repeatedly tries to get her “women’s group” interested in her cause, to no avail. The Grawsills’ clearly (but not to them) gay son Brian, who attends college, wants to be a lawyer specializing in “social justice and environmental law,” an admission that makes his father explode with rage. England’s mild-looking character has that clenched, suspicious manner of the perennially embattled and his outbursts are quite funny. Turns out that Ron has anxiety/anger problems, for which he takes a variety of drugs. When the couple decide to actually shop at Whole Fruits, they are confused by “lots of bins and roots.” A helpful wellness employee/Yoga instructor (Alex Dawson, nailing her archetype) encourages Ron to throw away his meds and just eat healthy stuff instead. This fits in nicely with his paranoia about “those Obama people” and insurance companies pushing prescription drugs.
Time passes, as does the healthcare reform bill of 2010, and we see Ron and Laura drop in on Brian and his new “roommate,” an older African American professor (nicely played by Tony Sanders). As Brian tentatively attempts to come out to his parents, Ron barks, “I don’t like your tone,” knowing what’s coming. A nightmare scenario ensues, with Ron having some kind of fit and collapsing, but Laura is unwilling to call 911 because of their high insurance deductible.
Ron and Laura are also contending with his dementia-addled mother, who repeatedly runs into the street and strips off her clothes, to the chagrin of her young Latina caretaker. The couple visit a lovely retirement village, where they are shocked by the fact that the place will cost every cent of the old woman’s savings. Ron predictably winds up calling the headscarf-wearing director “Ayatollah.” Turns out he really needed those anger meds, and he ends up in a psychiatric facility.
In addition to all this, there’s also a subplot involving Laura’s growing obsession with designer-to-the-stars Bob Zackie (whom she discovers accidentally by confusing him with the Whole Fruits CEO), which seems extraneous. To be sure, the film isn’t exactly plot-driven and many scenes are strung together tenuously; some are funny, others not as much.
England and Markham are fun to watch and they clearly have their fingers on the pulse of conservative America and those who are full of inarticulate outrage. As amusing as it is, Ron and Laura Take Back America feels a couple of years too late. By now, we’ve heard the characters’ sentiments amplified ad nauseam, and by those who should presumably be more informed. Maybe we’re just finding it harder to laugh at this point.
Ron and Laura Take Back America is playing at Cinema Village, Manhattan.