It’s hard to decide which image best encapsulates the weirdness of The Manipulator, a thriller with Mickey Rooney as a psychopathic movie professional holding a woman hostage in a warehouse and pretending she’s the star of a movie he’s directing. One contender is the long sequence of Rooney dressed as Cyrano de Bergerac, complete with plumed hat and prosthetic nose, while he spews reams of faux-poetic dialogue. Another possibility is the shot of Rooney rocking back and forth in a chair, his eyes bulging in madness, as he screams the lyrics of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” Yet perhaps the winner is the scene in which Rooney slathers his face with garish harlot makeup, sweeps his wispy hair into a Caesar style, and minces his way through a verbal affectation so stereotypical it would give Paul Lynde pause. Clearly imagined as a tour de force, The Manipulator instead comes across as a tour de farce.
It’s not as if Rooney was incapable of good work in the later years of his career, even though his eccentricities often overshadowed the charm that made him one of America’s biggest stars during the 1930s and 1940s; one need only revisit his performance in, say, the TV movie Bill (1981). Yet it seems late-period Rooney needed strong directors to keep him under control, and he’s allowed to run wild in The Manipulator. To be clear, The Manipulator—sometimes known as B.J. Lang Presents—was never destined for greatness. It’s a claustrophobic and far-fetched lark with an inherently repetitive storyline, essentially a one-man show that doesn’t go anywhere.
Nonetheless, actors live for these kinds of opportunities, since being the primary focus of an entire movie allows for rare levels of multidimensional characterization. Alas, that doesn’t happen here. Rooney’s character is loopy from beginning to end. Plus, to be blunt, playing crazy actually lowers the degree of difficulty for flamboyant performers—any random thing they do is permissible. The challenge in a role like this one is going deep and small, but Rooney does the opposite, despite fleeting moments that convey a peculiar sort of vulnerability.
In any event, the story is laughably threadbare. We never see B.J. Lang (Rooney) kidnap Carlotta (Luana Anders), and we never learn how he came into possession of a warehouse filled with movie equipment. Myriad scenes comprise tight closeups of Rooney screaming at the camera. Similarly, many scenes feature Fellini-esque dream imagery—naked people dancing, grotesque partygoers participating in orgies, and so on. Unpleasant flourishes juice the images, whether visual (e.g., strobe lights) or aural (e.g., discordant electronic bleeps). Accordingly, the tone is all over the place. Much of The Manipulator is designed to horrify, but some scenes drift into broad comedy, like the where-the-hell-did-that-come-from bit of Rooney doing a Chaplinesque dance within sped-up camerawork. The sum effect is as perplexing as it is wearying. Anders’ nonexistent acting range doesn’t help, and neither does the disappointment of watching the fine actor Kennan Wynn enter and exit the film so briefly and so pointlessly.
On some level, The Manipulator is fascinating simply because Rooney displays so many wild colors, and there’s a kernel of satirical edge to the premise, which echoes Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950). Mostly, however, The Manipulator is 85 minutes of sadism and screaming and strangeness.
The Manipulator: FREAKY