In 1941, the great writer/director Preston Sturges made a film called Sullivan’s Travels about a movie director tired of making shallow escapist comedies and so disguises himself as a hobo and hits the road for research to make the great American drama, “O Brother, Where Art Thou” (yes, it’s where the Coen bros got the name for their movie). In 2011, in Craigslist Joe (the new documentary directed by Joseph Garner), Kristos Andrews (in the title role) goes off the grid for a month to see if he can survive by depending upon the kindness of strangers that he meets through craigslist.org.
The main difference in these two movies is that Sullivan’s Travels is fully aware of the inherent fallacy in the central character’s journey: the director is not, nor ever will be, a truly homeless person and thereby, there is something condescending and shallow about what he is trying to do (which makes up much of the humor).
But Craigslist Joe never seems to realize this disconnect. In fact, Andrews travels around with a cameraman to record everything, which is probably going to kind of sort of make him a lot more disarming than your everyday street person. And no matter what Andrews claims, he is never really homeless. He has an apartment and family and money back in Los Angeles; he goes off the grid not because he has no other alternative, as truly homeless people do, but by choice. He is also, dare I say it and risk the taint of controversy, white. Which is important, because it is just about impossible to believe that if Andrews was anything else, was truly homeless (and/or a minority), was truly one of those unshaven, scary looking people on the streets, some of whom haven’t had a bath in months, he would have never been treated with the same respect.
So there is something wrong at the heart of this documentary. It purports to say that America is a generous nation that has its heart in the right place and will go out of its way to help those in need. That may very well be true. But that’s not what this movie proves. Instead, all it really demonstrates is that Americans are more than willing to help someone—as long as that person really doesn’t need any help (and is white).
At the same time, strangely enough, in many ways Craigslist Joe is a more than engaging movie that is well worth seeing. First of all, it’s a lot of fun. Andrews finds all sorts of strange and odd things to do on line that are fee (including a gratis break dance class—something that tells the audience that Andrews shouldn’t quit his day job, whatever that is exactly). As a result, the first thing one wants to do when one gets home after seeing the documentary is to log on and see just what this community based website has to offer that one never knew before.
But more important, the movie finds its real heart in the wide range of people that Andrews runs into as he traverses the U.S. These are one fascinating group of people of all backgrounds and beliefs from regular, everyday neighborly types; to charming and warm new agers; to slightly odd (but not quite) people who just like to drive places; to perhaps the most emotionally riveting of all, an actress who has a brain tumor and has become a hoarder (and gives one of the best defenses of hoarding I’ve ever heard).
This is where the movie soars. Not in its shallow commentary on the state of America’s generosity, but in this cross section of people the movie covers. This is the movie’s true message: not that people will help those that don’t require too much of them, but that we are a rich (hold for the cliché) tapestry of differences, a ragtag group of pied people. Garner may have gotten part of it wrong, but in the end, he got quite a bit of it right.