The very special and unique charm of documentaries is that they can present a slice of life that is truly stranger than fiction. If not stranger, then at least more compelling than fiction by simple virtue of being real. As such, audiences trust the filmmakers to present reality. The issue becomes murky when the presentation must necessarily be filtered through the filmmakers’ lens, taking into account how the footage was captured, how it was edited, and what content was included or omitted. Despite knowing that documentaries are presented from the filmmakers’ point of view, audiences still trust that the events depicted are true. When a documentary makes the viewer doubt the content as being staged, the film loses much of its appeal for obvious reasons. And so, in its efforts to be an engaging and funny film, A Journey to Planet Sanity betrays the sacred trust between a documentary and its audience, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining; it just makes the film feel more like reality TV than a documentary.
Blake Freeman is a Los Angeles filmmaker who has a very curious pizza delivery man named Leroy Tessina. At the time the film was shot, Leroy was a 68-year-old believer in aliens, psychics, the paranormal and the end of the world according to the Mayan calendar. Having struck up a conversation during a delivery to Blake’s home where Leroy revealed all of his beliefs, Blake decided to make Leroy the subject of this documentary. The purpose of which would be to “cure” Leroy of all his beliefs that have heavily cost him financially as he spends all of his money on gear to protect himself from aliens and on psychics to predict good fortunes. To that end, Blake and Leroy travel around the country to speak to so-called experts in the hopes that Leroy will finally see the truth.
According to the press release, which most audiences will never see, A Journey to Planet Sanity is a “reality based” documentary. That modifier should immediately raise red flags regarding the veracity of the events depicted. While Leroy seems genuine, as do some of the extreme characters highlighted in the film, there are several segments that appear partially or wholly staged. Most documentaries will include the names of major interviewees and any documentary that excludes the names is immediately suspect. How can viewers verify anything they see? So when Leroy and Blake visit a number of questionable psychics – one who spits on Leroy to cleanse him and another who handles Leroy’s excrement to predict his future – it’s impossible to know if these people are actually professed psychics or just actors.
Documentary purists will also bristle at the attempts to add authenticity to the presentation. On more than one occasion the faces of subjects are blurred out when there really isn’t any need for it. In one instance, an expert on crop circles is giving his opinion to Leroy and Blake and is fully aware that he is being filmed, presumably having given his consent. Yet his face is blurred. In another instance, three skinheads are standing on the corner of an empty street, protesting gays. There doesn’t appear to be any reason to blur their faces since they are in a public space with no legal expectation of privacy – especially since other people in similar spaces are shown unblurred. And since the neo-Nazis are protesting, it doesn’t appear that they’re even looking for privacy. Finally, this segment in particular strains the documentary’s credibility since there is no one else around to witness the protest except for the documentarians. The movie trailer makes this even more problematic since the skinheads were left unblurred anyway.
None of this is to say that these possibly scripted segments aren’t entertaining, because they are. Everyone enjoys watching bigots made fools of. And when the scatomancer – the psychic who reads human excrement – picks up Leroy’s stool and sniffs it, it’s hard not to react. It’s just hard to believe. A different direction that would have more clearly preserved the documentary/audience trust would have been to openly stage these scenes in an effort to “cure” Leroy, but keep Leroy’s reaction to them sincere.
In fact, there’s not enough Leroy in this film. Instead, A Journey to Planet Sanity comes off as a vanity project for Blake Freeman. Audiences don’t really get to know Leroy and why he believes the things he does. Viewers are given a couple of outlandish tidbits, like Leroy’s helmets that block aliens from reading his mind, but that’s about it. How deep do his beliefs go? Has he experienced something first-hand? Can he even change his mind about these things at his age? None of these questions are explored before Blake whisks audiences away on their adventure.
Unfortunately, Blake, as presented in the film, isn’t a very likeable person. Early on he’s captured at his beachfront home, standing on his balcony overlooking the ocean, drinking his morning coffee and scratching his ass only to then visit the destitute Leroy in his decrepit home. The comparison of social and economic status was unnecessary. Then later in the film, a very long segment depicts Blake reducing Jackson Pollock to splattered paint on canvas and then defrauding art buyers into thinking they’re purchasing work from a famous French artist in order to help Leroy out of a financial jam. The last part is ironic because Blake becomes the scam artist that he decried earlier in the film, convincing people to believe in a reality that doesn’t exist. As long as audiences don’t fall for the same con and just accept A Journey to Planet Sanity as something less than a pure documentary, then viewers should have a good time. Otherwise, they may feel just as ripped off as the people who bought the artwork and then watched this film.