A comprehensive exploration of what has to be the handiest, most versatile and most divisive word in the English language, Steve Anderson's "****" (pronounced "****") opens just a few days after the Federal Communications Commission's reversal of an indecency ruling against CBS' "The Early Show." The FCC determined that a "Survivor Vanuatu" contestant calling another player an expletive did not constitute indecency because it was used in the context of a news show -- proving once again that words such as "news show" are malleable things, subjective and open to myriad, often contradictory interpretations.
The documentary, which naturally takes advantage of certain phonetic echoes in the word "documentary" to describe itself, explores the F-word's linguistic origins, grammatical flexibility, social history and colloquial and political uses. It puts to rest the old chestnut about its genesis as an acronym for a royal edict -- "fornicate under command of the king" -- which always sounded like a bit of etymological wishful thinking. It also delves into the wondrous elasticity and adaptability of a word that serves as an "intensifier," a noun, a verb, an adjective, a transitive verb and, indeed, as every word in a delicious complete sentence.
Consisting of news footage and television clips, interspersed with short animations by Bill Plympton and rapidly edited talking-head interviews with figures as diverse as Sam Donaldson, Hunter S. Thompson, Pat Boone, Steven Bochco, Ben Bradlee, Chuck D and Billy Connolly, the movie focuses on the word's special place in the culture wars, where it has long been a lightning rod for debates about free speech and government regulation of expression.
Most interesting is its prominent place in the history of legislation (Lenny Bruce, who was arrested twice and convicted for his refusal to stop saying it publicly) and as a bellwether for the political climate of the country. Country Joe McDonald's "Fish Cheer" at Woodstock is here, as is conservative talk-show host Dennis Prager, who characterizes the fight over the word as central to civilization's "battle to preserve itself."
Often surprising and thought-provoking (the urge to euphemize is characterized as a drift away from reality), "****" is as funny and cathartic as the word it celebrates, and nearly as perversely shock-happy. Connolly, in particular, elicits belly laughs purely from his inspired intonation and glee at being asked to dwell on one of the few things in modern life that retains some measure of taboo despite its ubiquity. But the film is not as rigorous as it might have been, and eventually the pleasure it takes in its own potty-mouthed excess edges out more interesting questions. One fascinating fact it does shed light on is the alarming spike in indecency-related complaints to the FCC since 2000, coinciding with the rise of groups such as the Parents Television Council.
Both sides of the aisle are given equal time to defend and condemn, although the movie clearly sides with the liberal argument. This is the funnier choice, as well as the obvious and easy one. It's somewhat undermined by the inclusion of a porn star couple whose crassness edges toward the point where even heavy and enthusiastic users of the expletive might start to discern a line. That line -- the one between repression and anything goes -- occasionally drifts into view, bringing up interesting questions. But the big questions take a backseat to the comedy -- although, in truth, it's hard to think of a better defense of the use of the word than to ponder the possible alternatives: Boone favors "Boone!" Hearing this, Chuck D considers adding it to his repertoire.
MPAA rating: Unrated
A ThinkFilm release. Director-producer Steve Anderson. Animation Bill Plympton. Director of photography Andre Fontanelle. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.