Hot Docs Review – The Rise and Fall of the Grumpy Burger

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The Rise and Fall of the Grumpy Burger
Director - Matt Gallagher

Hot Docs Synopsis:

Filmmaker Marshall Sfalcin is Canada’s answer to Ed Wood and Russ Meyer. His no-budget monster movies are works of fantasy, favouring big scares and bigger boobs to truth and authenticity. With his latest film, Sfalcin is determined to tell the “serious” story about his family history and their bold claim that they, and not McDonald’s, are the rightful inventors of fast food. Along to capture the making of Sfalcin’s masterpiece is fellow filmmaker and childhood buddy Matt Gallagher. As Sfalcin’s vision of his film changes due to a barrage of obstacles, Gallagher’s documentary morphs from straightforward “making-of” film into a complex mediation on truth and fiction, where the lines are always blurred. The Rise and Fall of Grumpy Burger is that rare treat of a film that entertains and captivates with its outrageous story and brash characters while, at the very same time, asking the audience to question everything they are seeing.
-Alan Black

The Rise and Fall of the Grumpy Burger was the last in a long day of documentary screenings for me, and I was hoping for a relaxing, fun time in which I could just sit back and be entertained. Although the film is definitely some pretty light fair, I actually found myself having some difficulties getting into this story of one man’s mission to make a low budget film about his family-owned fast food restaurant which, according to him, predates McDonalds. There were some entertaining moments, but the heavily staged atmosphere of the film was a total distraction.

We’re introduced to Marshall Sfalcin, a Windsor, Ontario native who’s a self proclaimed b-movie filmmaker. Actually, according to Marshall, he doesn’t make ‘films’, but rather ‘movies’. Films are for the pretentious artsy-fartsy crowd. I wonder how he feels about a film about a movie-maker screening at a documentary film festival? Anyways, we’re given a quick overview of his low budget process as we sit in on a dialogue recording session in which Marshall’s brother is attempting to perform some sort of creepy voice over. This eventually leads to a yelling fit between the two (one of many in the film) that for me, seemed quite obviously put on and a desperate attempt to recreate the comedic magic of other ‘making of films’ like American Movie. Unfortunately, Grumpy Burger failed pretty hard for me.

About a quarter way into the film, Marshall decides to make his first non-horror or science fiction oriented movie, focusing instead on the true events surrounding his now defunct family owned resturaunt, Hi-Ho. Their main dish? The Grumpy Burger! Favours are called in, and friends are gathered as Marshall starts pulling together a crew to get the film started. Through the audition process, we learn that Marshall refuses to write scripts, forcing the actors to do some pretty horrible improv. This is where things get confusing, because I think this is all suppose to be funny in a ‘look at how wrong these guys are in their approach to filmmaking’ sort of way. We get scenes of a megalomaniacal Marshall barking out orders to friends who are concerned about jumping in to dirty ponds, or concerning himself with how many slices of meat an actor puts on a sandwich in a scene. All of this plays totally self-aware and feeds the idea of what a funny ‘making of’ documentary should contain. Unfortunately, I didn’t buy any of it.

It seems the entire theme of this film is ‘who’s directing who’ or a questioning of what is truly fact or fiction. After all, Marshall is making a film which is ‘based on a true story’ that ultimately fails to resemble anything close to what he set out to capture. Maybe the staged scenes of distress between Marshall and his brother simply compliment this idea and comment on non-fiction film making as a whole. How artsy-fartsy! Either way, it still doesn’t make up for the fact that this film just isn’t focused enough. I almost wanted to learn more about the Hi Ho restaurant’s history and see Marshall prove that it’s truly the world’s first fast food restaurant. Marshall’s relationship with his Grandmother was also an aspect worth exploring even further. After all, I do think he was a charming character. But this movie was made with a direct goal; to try and be meta and to try and be funny. The difference is, most of the films of this type that succeed do so because the subjects don’t have to TRY and be funny. They simply are. — Jay