There’s something sort of quaint about the ideas plumbed in the documentary “F---,” about the suggestion that anything could possibly be shocking anymore, particularly a frequently bandied-about four-letter word.
There’s also something terribly familiar about the film’s resemblance to another documentary that amassed celebrities and cultural experts to discuss a taboo topic: the more consistently entertaining “The Aristocrats,” which traced the development of one of the oldest and raunchiest jokes in comedy.
Director Steve Anderson exhaustively explores the origins of the word and its many uses, from Lenny Bruce on stage to Dick Cheney on the Senate floor. (And he dispels the commonly held conception that the F-word is an acronym for something like “Fornicate Under Command of the King” or “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.” It is not.)
Comics like Billy Connolly, Drew Carey and Bill Maher can be hilarious when they get on a roll — then again, they should be, this is right in their wheelhouse — but too often “F---” feels like an endless parade of talking heads. Everyone falls into one of two camps: the cool kids who think the word is no big deal, and the conservatives who still find it obscene (and are far less fun, therefore far less funny).
Sam Donaldson explains in his trademark bombast that “The F-word is a grand word,” while Pat Boone thinks its use suggests crassness, and has instead turned his own last name into a cathartic expletive. Try shouting “Boone!” next time you stub your toe or knock over a glass of red wine. Doesn’t feel quite so satisfying.
Porn stars like Ron Jeremy and Tera Patrick get in on the act as do musicians including Ice-T and Alanis Morissette, whose first hit, “You Oughta Know,” famously included the line: “Are you thinking of me when you f--- her?”
“F---” also features what Anderson believes is the last filmed interview with Hunter S. Thompson before his 2005 suicide. He looks sadly old and frail, especially compared to a clip of him at the height of his gonzodom thirtysomething years earlier, yet he still clearly savors pushing the limits of what’s considered appropriate and tasteful.
But then clips from myriad movies including “Sideways,” “Old School” and “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” tend to upstage the documentary itself. (Though it is a useful little tidbit that “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” features the word a whopping 228 times, a figure that “F---” easily leaves in the dust.)
And like the act itself that constitutes one of the word’s meanings, you can only do this for so long. By necessity, “F---” branches out into a discussion of decency, ranging from David Caruso’s bare butt on “NYPD Blue” to Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction. At this point, the movie has lost its initial focus and instead becomes an indictment of the Federal Communications Commission — which feels as if it could be an entire documentary of its own.
Anderson was definitely onto something in naming his movie as he did, though, knowing it would present a challenge for the media and theater marquees alike (he uses letters not hyphens). The fact that we can’t say the film’s title in this review proves his point exactly.