Published Sep 01, 2001
If the idea of mentally handicapped people conducting man-on-the-street interviews during a cross-country trip strikes you as exploitation, then "How's Your News" isn't a film you should see. The idea comes from a project at Camp Jabberwocky, a camp for the mentally and physically handicapped in New Hampshire. Campers would roam the town conducting interviews with people. The videos became something of a cult hit and caught the attention of "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The pair decided to fund an American tour of the "How's Your News" crew from their home state of New Hampshire to California. The journey results in a funny, touching and occasionally disturbing look at Americans.
The cast is made up of five people with varying disabilities. Ronnie Simonsen is the funniest of the bunch. He possesses an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of 70s television and is obsessed with soap operas and B-actor Chad Everett, star of "Medical Center." During his many interviews he spontaneously breaks into impersonations of various actors, which all sound suspiciously alike.
Susan Harrington takes a more serious approach to her interviews. In one, she attempts to talk to a homeless veteran in Tennessee, asking him what attractions they should see in his state. He is less than co-operative, saying the town "stinks" and refusing to answer her questions.
Bobby Bird, a 45-year-old with Down's Syndrome who is unable to speak clearly manages to conduct interviews nonetheless. His first encounter is with a soapbox preacher, who, looking for converts, asks Bobby if he has accepted Jesus into his life. Although the answer is unclear, the preacher quickly realises he isn't getting anywhere and turns his attention back to passers-by.
The film veers toward exploitation during the interviews conducted by Larry Perry, who has severe spastic cerebral palsy. Confined to a wheelchair and clutching a microphone, he is unable to speak as he squirms around eliciting strange looks from the people passing him. His inability to speak forces those hooked by the "Free Interviews" sign in front of him to basically interview themselves. One woman vainly attempts to start a conversation then decides that dancing with him would be a better idea.
The most incisive moments come via Ronnie, whose questions have a childlike inquisitiveness to them that endears him to the viewer. In one, he speaks to a Southern construction worker on his lunch break. He asks him if he has any dreams and the man is unable to answer. When he asks him what he likes to do, he says he likes to ride motorcycles, to which Ronnie asks "Does it make you feel like the Fonz?"
One of the ideas that, although interesting, was difficult to watch, was a pair of glasses with a built-in camera. It effectively captures the bewildered reactions of the interviewees but the jerky motion isn't audience friendly, especially on Larry. The other thing about this film that may cause discomfort is that, even though the "How's Your News" correspondents are enjoying themselves, you still can't help but feel a little guilty for watching their antics. It's like seeing someone slip and fall in public and trying to stifle the inevitable laugh that wells up inside you.