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It was a solid if unspectacular year for Minnesota filmmakers, past and present, in Park City. Among the former locals sporting new work, producer Esther Robinson (The Last Broadcast) brought the illuminating Web doc Home Page to the Sundance Film Festival; and expat Minneapolitan Jarl Olsen screened both "Cry Radio" and "Devil Dog/Ring Pull" (the latter earning an Honorable Mention award) in the fest's short-subject slots. As for current Minnesotans, commercial-maker Rick Dublin unspooled his brief, witty "Bubblepac"; and Princeton, Minn., native Wyatt McDill graced Sundance's rival, the Slamdance Film Festival, with the eight-minute "Shortwave," his sweet tale of a 13-year-old farm boy who goes from being a passive recipient of pop culture to a budding producer of it. ("Shortwave"'s Slamdance screening preceded the compellingly silly mock-rockumentary Dill Scallion, shot largely in our fair state and co-produced by ex-Minnesotan Joe Blake.)
But the standout hometown achievement belonged to St. Paul-born writer-director-producer-actor Mitch Hedberg, whose Clerks-like comedy Los Enchiladas! screened three times as part of Sundance's "Park City at Midnight" series. Shot in 16mm in the Twin Cities area on a 22-day schedule and a budget of $100,000, Los Enchiladas! charts the clock-punching exploits of disgruntled employees at the titular eating establishment--an inauthentic Mexican chain restaurant located on the outskirts of the Maplewood Mall.
As this wannabe Chi-Chi's prepares for a perceived rush of customers on Cinco de Mayo, the film's hourly wage-earning characters suffer petty humiliations and live in wait of mañana: There's a good-natured, appetizer-pushing waitress (charmingly played by Minnesota native Jana Johnson, who also co-produced the movie); a horny hotel clerk (played by stand-up comic Todd Barry); an underage and gap-toothed hostess (Kimberlee Iblings); and a slow-witted drill sergeant of a chef (Jim Jorgensen) who's responsible for a "Mexican" menu that includes onion rings on a stick. (It might be noted that an issue of City Pages enjoys a prominent cameo in the film.) Amid a gaggle of mild indigestion jokes, one of the movie's slapstick highlights has the restaurant's scuzzy manager (Dave Attell) beating up a poor guy in a foam rubber gyro suit from the Greek joint down the road.
Hedberg, 30, a stand-up comedian who's been featured on the David Letterman show and the Comedy Central network as well as in the pages of Time (which described him as "a surfer Steven Wright"), plays the loosely autobiographical role of a stoner prep cook and amateur author who has a finely honed habit of wandering the country. The comic himself has likewise put down roots all over: After graduating from St. Paul's Harding High and "fucking around for three years" in Florida, as he puts it, Hedberg hit the road to develop a sheepish yet sharp stand-up style that eventually took him to the "Just For Laughs" comedy festival in Montreal, whereupon he scored a sitcom development deal with Fox. Hedberg says he "blew" a large portion of Fox's money (and the proposed TV gig hasn't yet come to pass), but, using what was left of this windfall, he audaciously invested in his own debut feature.
"I didn't know how to make a movie," says the shaggy-looking Hedberg, lounging in Park City's fashionably funky Bad Ass Coffee Shop and speaking in an affected Southern twang that somehow suits him. "But I found a couple of guys to help me out," he says of co-cinematographers Matt Ehling and Chris Haifley, whom he located through the Minnesota Film Board and the nonprofit, pro-indie outfit IFP/North. On his own, Hedberg brought to the production a firsthand knowledge of the food-service milieu gained through his stints at numerous Mexican eateries in the Twin Cities, Boca Chica being one. "I always thought the idea of Mexican food in the Midwest was ridiculous," he says. "I'd thought of writing a comedy about it for 10 years."
If Los Enchiladas! has a fault (and, to put it kindly, it does), it's that Hedberg the writer-director gives too few one-liners to Hedberg the comic, whose imaginatively jovial half-hour routine on Comedy Central encompassed everything from tooth-flossing and AIDS testing to emergency brakes and alcoholism ("the only disease you can get yelled at for havin'"). Comparatively undercooked, Los Enchiladas! wasn't well-served by its Sundance premiere at the Egyptian Theatre, where it screened after midnight to a crowd whose friskier members were hoping for an indie entrée as raw as Clerks, and whose sleepier (or drunker) ones were unconscious before it started. As Hedberg put it during his Comedy Central shtick: "You can't please all the people all the time--and last night a lot of those people were at my show."
Hedberg hopes to solicit a more favorable reaction by taking his movie on the road to screen in conjunction with his stand-up act. (He is also scheduled to perform a homecoming gig at the Acme Comedy Club in early April.) Buoyed by the fact that a subsequent Sundance screening at the Holiday Village Cinemas went over much better, the comedian continues to wear a happy face. "If you go to Sundance and you don't sell your movie," he says, "it's not the end of the world, you know what I'm sayin'? I remember thinkin' to myself at one point, 'You know, I don't give a fuck about losing money--I just want to make a movie, see what it's like.' And I did. You go back and forth: You get this hype thing going, you get this high going, you get these delusions of grandeur--and then you come back down. But I never cried, you know what I'm sayin'? Like, after the first screening, I didn't cry, I just had to go sit in my hotel room for a couple hours and chill."
And how does the Minnesota-born comedian chill? Hedberg: "By cryin'."