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“We’re All Mad Here”: Nursery Rhyme of a Mad Man Film Review

Everyone must be a little mad to work at the insane asylum in Nursery Rhyme of a Mad Man, including the patient Mitchell Wahlberg, the tortured-soul poet, Nurse Anna, and the two main doctors who work there. In this kooky ninety minute feature, Director Igor Stephen Rados explores Mitchell’s quest to find freedom, and the disturbing fealty all asylum employees have to Mitchell and their psychological field. It’s a wild ride of absurdity.

The material is inspired by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, a multi-hyphenate writer-artist-philosopher active around World War I. His works grew in popularity after the war, and he is known to have made art while consuming a variety of drugs. Like Witkiewicz, Mitchell cites having issues with drugs, and upon viewing Witkiewicz’s chaotic, expressionistic paintings, one could see how the character of Mad Mitchell came about. Even in the composition of the actor’s facial expressions and the art direction, you can see Witkiewicz’s imprint.

Mitchell, played by Christopher James Rika, is introduced abruptly both straight-jacketed and unhinged, attempting to run away from a doctor who has him sedated. He is taken from an urban Canadian landscape to an Addams Family-like 19th century mansion that also serves as a mental asylum. At the asylum he shares his soul with Nurse Anna, played by Pola Tumarkin Stankovic. The two form a bond over Mitchell’s poetry and she pledges to take care of him. Meanwhile, two doctors, Dr. Fritz, played by Keith Fernandes, and Dr. Groom, played by Tim Kachurov, both debate over whose methodology for care is the best.

Dr. Fritz appears to believe in psychotherapy, medicine, and observable science while Dr. Groom believes in psychoanalysis, or study of the unconscious mind, a study practiced and popularized by Sigmund Freud. The theory argues the unconscious mind drives behavior and cognition and mental health improvement can occur by bringing the unconscious to light.

Dr. Fritz and Dr. Groom are extreme examples of the two branches of thought. Dr. Fritz does grotesque experiments on animals and is willing to poison his patients with medicine. Dr. Groom is willing to rationalize Mitchell’s worst behaviors as a manifestation of resentment toward being called “crazy.” These two antagonists lampoon the human obsession with understanding why people do “crazy things” to stop them from doing “crazy things” while simultaneously and paradoxically allowing them to be “crazy.” Is there always a rhyme or reason for craziness?

Well for Mitchell, there is at least a rhyme. When Mitchell reaches a breakthrough moment of understanding himself, he begins to write again. Throughout the film he barks bits of poetry which shed light on his situation, until the finale in which he recites a full length poem. He navigates the stereotype that all artists walk—the line of whether or not to produce great art, we must also be insane. It’s a well-trod stereotype, and this film corroborates it without necessarily adding revolutionary thoughts.

The performances and set design are equally stunning. The overall look and feel of Nursery Rhyme of a Mad Man is very mid-century. Almost like a Wes Anderson film, the performances and art direction feel purposefully stylized. Nurses and doctors have cell phones and modern cars, but they still wear uniforms and suits straight out of 1960. Occasionally some of the male gaze and commentary about women in the film felt as mid-century as the artistic style. It could have been nice to see these moments cut altogether, or seen a variety of female representation that went beyond women serving their male superiors or their fantasies.

Still, the performances are intoxicating and humorous. Christopher James Rika and Keith Fernandes have one scene where they are each cheshire-cat laughing at one another as Rika (Mitchell) appears to go back and forth teasing the idea that he will choke Fernandes (Dr. Fritz) to death. Rika (Mitchell) and Stankovic (Nurse Anna) don’t just longingly stare at each other, they declare their love passionately, directly like Brando yelling Stella in Streetcar Named Desire. The performances are as theatrical and melo-dramatic as the material itself. It all fits the bizarre world and darkly comedic tone of the film.

Nursery Rhyme of a Mad Man is shot beautifully by John Holosko, part of the camera team on Suicide Squad. Each frame of his has a painting-like composition. The photography accentuates the already hauntingly beautiful asylum complete with ornate, carved wood banisters, old oil paintings, and plentiful natural light. Nursery Rhyme of a Mad Man has a film-like quality that is tactile even though it appears to be shot digitally on a RED camera. Holosko nailed an overall, grand cinematic feel. Rados’ blocking also adds to the comedy. Rados’ cleverly threw in several physical comedy moments that kept the film the right amount of silly, but didn’t cheapen the cinematic quality. There was some potential for more sound design. At times there were dead spaces, but the cliche music stings added to the heightened feel of film.

Igor Stephen Rados offers a twisty ride into the absurd world of psychiatry and art while paying tribute to an important Polish artist of the nineteenth century. Though it may have an unconventional plot line, the performances, art style, and theme made it an engaging film to watch.

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