In Cheatin’, the seventh animated feature by cult favorite Bill Plympton, the plot runs on a misunderstanding that could be cleared up by a short conversation — if the characters could talk. But this film, like Plympton’s previous Idiots and Angels, has no dialogue, so it takes the central married couple the length of the movie to figure it all out. This is frustrating, to say the least, but let’s give Plympton the benefit of the doubt and assume the frustration is intentional. The central married couple, Ella and Jake (“voiced” by Sophia Takal and Jeremy Baumann in what amounts to a series of grunts and screams), have communication problems. They’re madly in love with each other, but their relationship seems stuck in the physical realm. In brief, they’re humans who don’t realize they’re cartoons.
Other women are always throwing themselves at Jake, but he declines. Then one of the jilted women gives Jake a photo that makes it look as though Ella has been massively unfaithful, and Jake’s despair and rage lead to his own infidelity. I don’t think Plympton is trying to make any big statements about male/female relations; he’s just having fun riffing on a theme, as he always does. Plympton, though, may strike some as a talent that works best in short doses (while die-hard fans will cherish every minute they get). Even at only 76 minutes, Cheatin’ occasionally feels long, and I think that’s because individual sequences — even individual shots — tend to run on just a bit more than they need to. Plympton clearly relishes basking in his own visual exuberance, but after a while we may prefer the narrative, or what passes for it, to move along.
At other points, though, Plympton’s drawn-out strangeness seems the only way for him to work — the unique thing he has to offer as an artist. Nobody will ever call him a stiff cartoonist: bodies bend and stretch for yards, gravity and physics abide by Plymptonian rules when they aren’t disregarded altogether. Cheatin’ at its loosest and most lyrical is superb eye candy. But if an animator is to work at feature length, a story can’t just be a visually luscious riff. Now and again, the movie feels like a compilation of short “Plymptoons” that happen to share a theme and a pair of characters. I should admit, in case it isn’t apparent by now, that I’m not the biggest Plympton fan. I admire his sui generis style and his visual tomfoolery, but something about his stuff leaves me cold — an experience I noted when watching his first feature, 1992’s The Tune.
What’s my issue? I guess I get the sense that Plympton is into animation for its own joyfully manipulative sake, that he loves twisting and tweaking anatomy and nature as far as he can without stampeding into the realm of the abstract. But here’s just one small example in Cheatin’ of what leaves me cold. Jake has just found out (or so he thinks) that Ella has cheated on him. He jumps in his car and takes off. He howls in misery. He races a train. His teardrops bead up and fly behind him. He looks and sounds like a grievously wounded doofus with a nose that resembles nothing so much as a big fat dick. All of this is clever, amusing, and so on. Except it’s not supposed to be. We should be feeling Jake’s pain, or at least relating to it. Instead we chuckle and admire Plympton’s imaginative verve. And if Plympton would let Jake or Ella say a damn word to each other, their problem would be cleared up, and it would be a seven-minute cartoon — which it possibly should’ve been to begin with.