‘Raising Buchanan’ brings humor and heart to a Coen-esque crime caper

Amanda Melby and Steve Briscoe in "Raising Buchanan." (Courtesy photo)

By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

President James Buchanan, our country’s 14th commander-in-chief, is commonly ranked as one of the worst presidents in American history.

His decisions in office read like a laundry list of the skeletons barely hiding in America’s closet. Buchanan supported the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case that proclaimed no person with African ancestry could claim citizenship. He fought to bring Kansas into the Union as a slave state, further dividing factions that were already at each other’s throats.

To many historians, Buchanan was, at best, an ineffective statesman and, at worst, a stubborn, principled man whose actions led the country to a place where civil war was inevitable. It doesn’t help that he was followed by Abraham Lincoln, either.

Buchanan’s legacy, or lack thereof, is at the core of writer-director Bruce Dellis’ quirky serio-comic crime film “Raising Buchanan.”

Should we be judged based on our worst decisions? Or is our legacy, our character, built on the sum total of our actions?

Ruth Kiesling (Amanda Melby), a quick to anger Arizona donut shop worker and parolee, is starting to ask herself the same questions. Well, only after she’s already stolen Buchanan’s corpse and tried – and failed – to ransom it for $150,000.

Conversations with a dead president, gangs of vengeful ventriloquists and the aforementioned misbegotten ransom plot give off an early Coen Brothers’ vibe. And although the title even evokes an early Coens’ classic, Dellis’ creativity and rhythm build a world worth spending time in.

Whether it’s Ruth’s kind-hearted parole officer Phillip (Terence Bernie Hines) or Errol (Steve Briscoe), the rakish leader of a ventriloquist gang, every side character pops the moment they appear on screen, as if they’ve really been living in this slightly off-center version of Arizona.

It’s a testament to Dellis’ writing, and the deft, breezy work of his cast, that the plot and themes never spin out of control, except when they need to.

After recruiting her friend Meg (a hilarious Cathy Shim) to help out with the ransom plot, Ruth’s plan almost immediately starts to fall apart. Her ransom email, sent on a public library computer to a government employee, is misinterpreted as a grant application. And as the ransom plummets from $150,000 to $40,000, Ruth begins to realize no one really wants Buchanan’s corpse.

As a Lancaster, Pennsylvania city employee drolly points out, Buchanan is the kind of president who would be included in a 30-second montage in a multi-part, history spanning Ken Burns documentary.

“Raising Buchanan” takes every opportunity it can to remind the audience of Buchanan’s failings as a president. But as Ruth’s plan for a quick payday slips away, the uncomfortable parallels between her own life, one that has led her to meeting with a parole officer every week and throwing breakfast burritos at other drivers, and the president’s rotting legacy force her to change course.

Her internal journey is externalized through recurring conversations and debates with a projection of Buchanan (Rene Auberjonois).

At first, it feels like a stylistic misstep, a contrivance to get Ruth to reflect on her misdeeds. It is, to a degree, but the more they chat and bicker, the more “Raising Buchanan” begins to reveal its hand.

Like a lot of things in “Raising Buchanan,” it works because of how earnestly Dellis and everybody involved commits to the bit. Melby’s prickly irreverence and Auberjonois’ stately stubbornness is a formula for perfect chemistry. Together, with charm and wit, they ground an otherwise ridiculous caper, digging beneath the surface to mine for emotional and thematic gold.

The jokes can sometimes feel forced, its characters occasionally talk in “movie speak” and the budget constraints are most keenly felt in an aesthetic and cinematographic style more in line with television, but “Raising Buchanan” shines with creativity, heart and a deep sympathy for the decisions, bad and good, we all make.