On February 9, 2016, Donald J. Trump won the Republican presidential primary in the state of New Hampshire. The very next day, the comedy video website Funny or Die presented Mr. Trump with a congratulatory gift: The Art of the Deal: The Movie, a 50-minute film starring Johnny Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) as The Donald. It was filmed in secret during December 2015, then hastily assembled while the filmmakers waited for the right moment to unleash it. They picked a good one: watching the cheerfully mean-spirited film in the wake of Trump's victory feels like salve for the wound.
The premise is an enjoyably ridiculous one. According to host Ron Howard (once again playing himself to quietly amusing effect), Trump wrote, directed, produced, edited and starred in a 1988 TV movie version of his own best-selling book. However, the film's broadcast was pre-empted by an overlong Monday night football game, and a furious Trump vowed that no one would ever be given the opportunity to see his masterpiece. Fortunately, Howard just so happens to have a copy.
What follows is a movie as seen through the lens of Donald Trump's ego and megalomania, which ultimately means that there isn't much that actually resembles a traditional movie. The important moments in Trump's past generally involve other people, and Trump is too selfish to grant other people a whole lot of screen time. As such, what might have been a fake by-the-numbers biopic instead spends most of its time allowing a cocky Trump to crow about his intelligence from the confines of his office (with a young kid who just so happens to be a huge Trump fan serving as an attentive, appreciative audience).
Trump has been parodied from nearly every angle imaginable at this point, but The Art of the Deal: The Movie nonetheless manages to find something that feels pretty fresh. It's not merely depicting Donald Trump as a buffoon, but rather demonstrating the depths of Trumps's petty childishness by imagining how he would tell the story of his own life. When supporting characters like Merv Griffin (Patton Oswalt, Big Fan) and Ivana Trump (Michaela Watkins, Trophy Wife) turn up, they speak in the way Trump imagines them speaking: they're a caricature's idea of a caricature; vague blobs of characterization that exist only to make Trump look noble or intelligent. It's kinda great.
Depp initially seems like an odd choice to play Trump, but once you see the performance, it all starts to make sense: buried under oodles of meticulously coiffed fake hair and rubbery makeup, Depp eagerly adds Trump to his colorful gallery of live-action cartoons. When actors on Saturday Night Live play Donald Trump, it feels like the guys tasked with imitating him are valiantly trying (and failing) to match the sheer absurdity of the real thing. Depp, on the other hand, makes Trump the perfect conduit for his scenery-chomping and fidgety physical comedy - there's no level of ridiculousness the actor can't match. This Trump may not perfectly resemble the real Trump on the surface, but the weirdly compelling, grotesque absurdity of this man feels exactly right.
Speaking of things that feel exactly right: The Art of the Deal: The Movie nails the retro '80s aesthetic it's aiming for, giving the whole thing a lo-fi, VHS-style look complete with cheesy animated chapter introductions, overenthusiastic guitar riffs and an instantly catchy theme song performed by none other than Kenny Loggins (“But Donald Trump could have performed it better,” the credits assure us). The consistently tacky filmmaking choices feel perfectly in line with Trump's own brand of crude pandering, whether it's a ridiculous scene involving ALF (yes, that ALF) giving a speech at Trump's wedding or the vain “hero shots” Trump gives himself on a regular basis.
The hasty production schedule means that the whole affair is a little rough around the edges, and some bits feel more inspired than others. Even so, the general sloppiness of the affair is cleverly built into the core idea, and more often than not the film successfully manages to sell the idea that its weak points stem directly from Trump's own shortcomings. A host of familiar faces (Alfred Molina! Stephen Merchant! Christopher Lloyd!) pop up over the course of the film's brief running time, but nobody gets to steal scenes from Depp, because Trump's “writing” and “direction” simply won't allow it.
The timely nature of the flick all but ensures that it will feel like a dated relic in no time at all (and it may disappear entirely if Trump's lawyers have anything to say about it), but it does what it sets out to do effectively. The film takes a number of ripped-from-the-headlines jabs at Trump, turning his distaste for immigrants into a running gag of sorts and including a bit of narration in which Trump fantasizes about shooting someone on 5th Avenue. However, the film is generally less interested in tackling his politics than in assaulting him as a person: no matter what Trump says he believes or what views he adopts, the only thing we can be sure of is that he's always looking out for himself. It's an intentionally disastrous piece of filmmaking, and the subtext is clear: this is what happens when you let Donald Trump run things. Whether it's a made-for-TV movie or the United States of America, you can be sure that he'll turn it into something hilariously and horrifyingly awful.
The Art of the Deal: The Movie
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 50 minutes
Release Year: 2016