Review: ‘Raising Buchanan,’ starring Amanda Melby, René Auberjonois, Cathy Shim, Terence Bernie Hines and M. Emmet Walsh

June 8, 2020

by Carla Hay

René Auberjonois and Amanda Melby in “Raising Buchanan” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Raising Buchanan”

Directed by Bruce Dellis

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed suburb of Phoenix, the comedy “Raising Buchanan” has a racially diverse (white, African American and Asian) cast of characters representing the middle-class and the wealthy.

Culture Clash: A financially desperate woman steals the corpse of U.S. president James Buchanan and hopes to sell it to wherever she can get the most money for it.

Culture Audience: “Raising Buchanan” will appeal primarily to people who like quirky comedies and movies that make references to Civil War-era American history.

Cathy Shim, Jennifer Pfalzgraff and Amanda Melby in “Raising Buchanan” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

Although the comedy film “Raising Buchanan” is about using a corpse as a commodity, the movie isn’t at all a “Weekend at Bernie’s” (another comedy film about a dead body) type of slapstick film. Instead of relying on physical gags, the quirky humor of “Raising Buchanan” is more of a commentary on shameful moments in American history (such as legal slavery) and how many of America’s sociopolitical issues from the slavery days still exist today. “Raising Buchanan” (the feature-film debut from writer/director Bruce Dellis) has some interesting and unique elements, but the movie starts to lose steam in the last third of the story, when the social commentary loses some of its bite.

Throughout the movie, it’s repeatedly mentioned that Buchanan (who was president from 1857 to 1861) is considered the worst U.S. president of all time. He advocated for states to keep slavery legal (such as Buchanan’s endorsement of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case), and he made other presidential decisions that are now considered on the wrong side of history. Before he was elected the 15th president of the United States, Buchanan said he would serve only one term. He was succeeded by Abraham Lincoln.

A running gag in “Raising Buchanan” is that whenever someone in the movie mentions Buchanan’s “worst U.S. president ever” reputation, one of the characters gives a side nod and says, “Well…,” as if to imply that a more recent president could take that title. In the production notes for “Raising Buchanan,” Dellis said he came up with the idea for the film before Donald Trump was elected president. However, the movie was filmed while Trump was president, so it’s clear that people can interpret the sarcasm however they want to interpret it.

“Raising Buchanan” starts off by showing protagonist Ruth Kiesling (played by Amanda Melby) in a weird situation: She’s handcuffed to a table leg in the kitchen of the donut shop where she works. And the “ghost” of James Buchanan (played by René Auberjonois) is telling her a story about seeing a magician’s stage show in Paris in 1855, where the show ended with the magician’s assistant being sawed in half and then never seen again. Buchanan says that it was widely believed that the assistant had really been murdered on stage without the audience knowing it at the time.

Buchanan tells Ruth, “When one encounters a magician, one expects and invites trickery. But the simplest way to saw a woman in half is to saw a woman is half.” What’s going on here? A great deal of “Raising Buchanan” is then a flashback that leads up to the moment where Ruth finds herself handcuffed in the donut shop’s kitchen and talking to the ghost of Buchanan.

Ruth works behind the counter at Gunderson Donuts, a small shop that is located in an unnamed city in the Phoenix area. She’s a 40-year-old underachiever who has a habit of lying and stealing. For example, when a customer returns to the shop to ask her if anyone saw the wallet he lost there, she says she’ll go in a back room and check.

Viewers see that Ruth is the one who took the wallet. Before going back to the front of the store to return the wallet to the customer, she steals all the cash that’s in the wallet. The customer notices the missing cash but says nothing, because everything else is still in the wallet.

Ruth’s dishonesty isn’t just habitual. It’s pathological and extreme. In another scene, she visits her ailing, widowed father Larry Kiesling (played by M. Emmet Walsh) in a hospice, where he’s been staying for almost a year. Ruth has told her bed-ridden father elaborate lies about her life: She says that she’s married to a financially successful businessman, she’s about be promoted in her important corporate job, and she has a baby son whom she’s brought with her to the hospice.

But those are all lies. In reality, Ruth is very single and “squatting” at Larry’s house with two roommates who are around her age: Meg (played by Cathy Shim), who works with Ruth at the donut shop, and Holly (played by Jennifer Pfalzgraff), who works as a janitor and part-time ventriloquist. And that baby isn’t Ruth’s either. She borrowed the baby from a single friend named Brock (played by Kane Black), who only gets to see his son during visitation arrangements.

And that’s not all the deception that Ruth is hiding from her father. She’s fallen 10 months behind on the mortgage payments to the house, because she used that money as payments for a settlement resulting from an auto theft that she committed. Although Ruth was arrested for the crime, she agreed to a deal where she would get probation and pay restitution. Ruth has another part-time job playing the cello for a smarmy ventriloquist named Errol (played by Steve Brisco), who puts his stage performances on YouTube to make extra money.

In a meeting with her probation officer Philip Crosby (played by Terence Bernie Hines), viewers find out that Ruth also has an anger-management problem, when she admits that she got involved in a road rage incident. Philip is exasperated when he tells Ruth that her job as a cello player in a ventriloquist act does not count as “community service.” He tells her to find work that actually qualifies as community service, so that she won’t be found guilty of violating the conditions of her probation.

But there’s a bigger problem that Ruth has to face: Her father Larry had been originally been given a month to live, but he obviously outlived that diagnosis. And now, he’s been told that he could be released from the hospice in as early as two weeks. She’s terrified that he’ll find out about all of her lies.

Ruth has avoided foreclosure on the house by telling the mortgage company that Larry is unable to to pay because he’s in a hospice. But if Larry is discharged from the hospice and comes home, she can no longer use that excuse to not pay the mortgage. And there’s also a possibility that her lies will lead to her roommates Meg and Holly having no place to live, and it will all be Ruth’s fault.

Around the time that it looks like Ruth’s web of lies will start to unravel and be exposed, her roommate Holly comes home and asks Ruth and Meg if they want to see a dead president of the United States. Holly takes them to the place where she works as a janitor and shows them a coffin containing the body of James Buchanan. (Although the movie has a lot of adult language, “Raising Buchanan” avoids the vulgarity of showing a corpse. Viewers just have to imagine what it looks like.)

Meg takes a photo of the dead president and comments, “He looks peaceful.” Ruth says, “He looks like a fucking ghoul.” Meg observes, “It’s hard to imagine Abraham Lincoln taking orders from this guy.” Holly replies, “Well, early on in his career, Jimi Hendrix opened for the Monkees.” This is the kind of dialogue that’s in the movie.

Much of the humor in “Raising Buchanan” derives from Ruth and Meg being less-than-smart in almost everything they do. (Think of them as an indie-film female version of “Dumb and Dumber.”) Ruth comes up with a poorly thought-out plan to steal Buchanan’s body to get what she thinks will be easy cash (she’s hoping for at at least $100,000) to solve her money problems.

Meg essentially follows Ruth’s orders, which includes disguising themselves in ridiculous wigs and exaggerated eyebrows when they go to a public library to email the “ransom note.” And when Ruth has to take time off from work because her Buchanan schemes are taking more time than she expected, she tells Meg to give any illness excuse to their boss, as long as the word “vagina” is in the excuse, so it can be used as grounds for a sexism lawsuit if he says no.

A lot of the movie’s storyline is about how different places and individuals reject Ruth’s attempts to extort money or to sell the Buchanan corpse to them, because Buchanan just isn’t considered important enough or respected enough for people to care. The U.S. government mistakenly thinks Ruth is asking for grant money, and she obviously doesn’t want to fill out any forms that would reveal her identity. Ruth then botches an attempt to sell the corpse to a rich widow named Laura Warren (played by Laura Durant) who collects rare historical objects.

Ruth’s sales pitch to Buchanan’s former hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is also met with comical results. An office guy (played by Robert Ben Garant) in the city government answers the phone and tells Ruth when she tries to sell Buchanan’s body to the city: “He’s not really a national treasure. He’s more of a town character. Good luck selling your corpse, man.” Ruth responds, “I’m working my way down a list. Hopefully, someone will care.”

While she works her way down her list, the “ghost” of James Buchanan often appears to Ruth (usually when she’s alone) and talks to her. This dialogue often leads to a sarcastic back-and-forth between Ruth and Buchanan on his legacy and why he made certain decisions while he was president of the United States.

The humor in “Raising Buchanan” is hit or miss. The movie works best in the first two-thirds, when Ruth gets rejection after rejection in trying to get money for the corpse. The humor is definitely “deadpan,” as opposed to “madcap,” since the comedy relies on Ruth and her cohorts being too simple-minded to come up with coherent plans, and yet they think they’re being criminal masterminds.

Melby and Shim make a pretty good comedy team, and the filmmakers should be commended for not doing predictable casting of people in their 20s in the lead roles. Ruth, Meg and Holly are in their 40s, but don’t have a maturity level that most of their peers do, which makes their shenanigans more pathetic, in a  comical way.

And the movie makes a point of showing that a smooth-talking “villain” such as Buchanan can come up with ways to explain some of his very heinous decisions. Auberjonois’ portrayal of Buchanan as a pompous blowhard who thinks he’s doing everything right is one of the main reasons to see this movie, because it’s a spot-on satire of how the real Buchanan might justify his decisions if he were alive today. (“Raising Buchanan” was one of the last film roles for Auberjonois, who died in 2019, at the age of 79.)

That being said, “Raising Buchannan” has some badly written jokes, such as how the movie handles the never-married Buchanan’s sexuality and how he is now widely perceived as a closeted homosexual. There’s been speculation that Buchanan’s longtime housemate William Rufus King was his secret lover, and there have been some historical accounts that many of Buchanan’s political peers thought the same thing. Some historians have also speculated that Buchanan could have been asexual, which is a theory that “Raising Buchanan” ignores.

Whatever Buchanan’s sexuality really was, it seems to have nothing to do with him being an incompetent leader of the United States. But “Raising Buchanan” makes a few questionable jokes to imply that Buchanan’s sexuality and his leadership skills were connected. For example, when Ruth first sees the corpse of Buchanan, she says that Buchanan being “queer” was one of the reasons why he was considered the “worst” president of the United States.

Later, when she taunts the ghost of Buchanan over him possibly being a closeted gay man, he responds by asking her if it would be fair for people to assume that Ruth and Meg are lovers just because they’re not married and live in the same household. Ruth sees his point and backs off of her slightly homophobic baiting of Buchanan.

Buchanan’s sexuality is brought up several times in the film because there’s a scene in the movie where Ruth and Holly (who eventually finds out that Ruth stole the Buchanan corpse) go to a local college’s LGBT center to try to sell the corpse. But, of course, Ruth and her cohorts are too dimwitted to know that not only would this LGBT center not have the money they want, but Buchanan’s white supremacist beliefs about slavery are also contradictory to any civil-rights beliefs that would include the LGBTQ community.

“Raising Buchanan” starts to lose its satirical edge in the last third of the movie, during a stretch of the story with ventriloquist Errol and his involvement in Ruth’s quest to get money for Buchanan’s corpse. The film also makes the mistake of trying to show parallels between Ruth’s messed-up, deceptive life and Buchanan’s despised legacy in American history, as if these two people weirdly have things in common and can therefore relate to each other.

It’s a misguided comparison that leads to clunky scenes that are meant to portray Buchanan as “sympathetic” and “misunderstood.” One of the reasons why filmmaker Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” (a satire about a boy in Nazi Germany who has Adolf Hitler as an imaginary best friend) was such a well-received, award-winning movie is because “Jojo Rabbit” never lost sight of why Hitler was such a toxic leader. Unfortunately, “Raising Buchanan” gets a little too unfocused toward the end of the film by trading in satire for sentimentality, which lessens the intended impact of the story.

Gravitas Ventures released “Raising Buchanan” on digital and VOD on May 5, 2020.