Opening with an animation of goats having sex, Penny Lane’s Nuts! is a bright and batty documentary about people getting screwed. You can count the audience among them to a degree, but in a fun way. We’re lied to, but we’re not scammed. The film presents the life story of John R. Brinkley, an entrepreneurial doctor who claimed to cure impotence in men by giving them a goat testicle transplant. It’s a story mostly adapted from his official, authorized biography, the kind that isn’t necessarily fact checked against any input taken from its subject.
Lane, however, did pore over the material in an effort to determine what parts are made up. She also depicts a trial brought forth by Brinkley that turned out to be damaging to himself, because it also put his background into question. It’s not a spoiler to say he was something of a crook, a snake-oil salesman who made it beyond the horse and wagon medicine shows to become a millionaire who maintained his fortune even during the Great Depression. He was the Citizen Kane of medical practitioners and even built a media empire, his through radio, and ran for office.
Brinkley’s rise happened to coincide with that of the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Morris Fishbein and his crusade against quacks, naming among them the famous “goat-gland doctor” from Kansas. It’s obvious at the start of the film that Brinkley was indeed such a fraud, even though Lane isn’t upfront about it. Instead she lets us enjoy his own account of his life, narrated from the text with traditional biographical documentary voiceover done in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. Then she unspools some known truths as a third-act courtroom drama.
Almost all of this, not just the goat sex, plays out through hand-drawn animation. There are a few live-action interviews, which I don’t believe are entirely essential, and some actuality material where available and truly necessary. It could only be portrayed in this manner of reenactment because there’s no way dramatizations could have captured the right kind of humor and old-timey feel without seeming hokey. Plus there would have been so much acted out that its documentary-ness would have been scrutinized by the establishment as harshly as Brinkley’s cure-alls.
Nuts! is pretty crazy, and as always I respect any doc that kicks off its brilliance with a multi-meaning title. It’s such a lively and droll feature that it makes me want to rush out and reconsider my relative dismissal of her last film, the archives-driven Our Nixon, in which I hadn’t seen much point. This one seems to have many, from the entertaining historical yarn to the ways it’s relevant to the relationship between business and government today, with the constant see-sawing of which side is the good and which is the bad.
Brinkley was no hero nor villain, but also both, in a way that makes him a great American folk legend. Nuts! does his tall tale justice with a heap of comedy and a dab of tragedy, placing him somewhere between the Pecos Bill of Disney’s eponymous 1948 cartoon, the Yippies of Brett Morgen’s animated courtroom documentary Chicago 10 and the charlatans of Wall Street and Washington alike.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2016.