‘Dickweed’ Review: A Severed Penis and a Prison Escape Somehow Make for a Bland Documentary

You won’t see many stories this year wilder than the one depicted in Jonathan Ignatius Green’s new documentary Dickweed, which features drugs, kidnappings, penile amputations, prison escapes and more. (To be fair, it features only one of several of those things, but plurals sound more exciting.)

Were I a “wild stories” critic, Dickweed — which my autocorrect keeps turning into “Duckweed” as if it were more likely I’d be writing about water lentils — would get top marks for sure. But while the story told in Dickweed is occasionally spectacular, the documentary itself is strangely focused, makes questionable use of its best interview subjects and relies on some of the blandest and most familiar artistic choices in the true-crime genre.

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Really, Dickweed isn’t a documentary. It’s two episodes of an upcoming SundanceTV true crime series — semi-appropriately titled True Crime Story: Smugshot — that have been reedited together and yet still feel like two episodes of a not-especially-remarkable true crime series, which SXSW has decided to treat like a feature documentary.

Treat it just as a delivery system for a great story that you can already find told in more journalistic fashion across the internet and it’s fine.

There’s at least a decent chance you actually know parts of the Dickweed story, because it isn’t like it didn’t get national news coverage as it unfolded, but it’s always nice to be reminded.

Back in 2012, Michael, a budding Orange County legal weed impresario, and Mary, his housemate, were abducted and driven out to the desert. The kidnappers demanded a million dollars from Michael. Michael did not have a million dollars. They threatened to chop off Michael’s penis if he didn’t pay. Michael still did not have a million dollars. They chopped off his penis.

Now if that were the only thing Dickweed were about in 90 minutes, you would at least understand its tawdry title — “You see there was weed and… he lost his dick!” — but no! There’s more! And it’s at least somewhat odd that Green went with Dickweed as his title, given that the second half of the documentary has nothing to do with dicks or weed and, even beyond that, the first half of the documentary doesn’t fit with the Smugshot series title, since everybody in the first half/episode is too busy HAVING THEIR PENISES CHOPPED OFF to be “smug” about anything, much less to mandate a mugshot. See, it’s a double play-on-words! Sigh.

Anyway, Michael had his penis chopped off and the rest of the documentary follows the investigation into the case, which led authorities to Hossein Nayeri. That’s when things get really wild! Or, rather, that’s when things return to the early level of wildness after a 40+-minute lull in wildness. Which isn’t bad, because it’s hard to maintain the same level of wildness as penile amputation and, honestly, you wouldn’t want to.

I’m expressing a lot of incredulity here, but the truth is that Dickweed is a very, very staid film. You could say, “That’s because it’s treating this insane story with a somber respectfulness for the penises that were lost.” But it’s just sedate.

Michael and Mary are both present to tell their story (and then don’t return, because very little here has to do with the initial kidnapping after a while) and give dry recountings of what were surely the most harrowing moments of their lives, all depicted in the most conventional of faceless re-enactments — non-graphic, just lots of fearful whimpering and darkly photographed desert. Comparably dry recountings are given by the lead detective involved and by one of the district attorneys pursuing the case. At best, this is maybe the newsmagazine — Dateline, 60 Minutes, whatever — version of the story.

Honestly, there really isn’t an “at worst.” Dickweed isn’t “bad.” Nothing here is ghoulish or gross or exploitative. Dickweed is a documentary about a guy getting his penis chopped off that you probably could watch with the whole family, though you wouldn’t want to.

The second episode — err … “half” — of the documentary leaves the case behind. If there were victims or humans to be honored, they’re forgotten. It becomes the Hossein Nayeri story and that’s OK, because he’s at least smug in the way the series’ title promises. He’s slick, completely without remorse and, unfortunately, without any introspection. Nayeri is interviewed in some remote video situation, and if you’re ever having one of those “Platforming versus exposing” debates about when we should or shouldn’t offer possible sociopaths a spotlight, this is a good example of “platforming.” I have vague memories of the case from when it was featured in the media back in the day, and seeing this new interview with Nayeri, I don’t think I understand him any better. He says what he wants to and nothing more.

Another part of the problem is that the second episode — err … “half” — of the documentary tries to turn this into a complicated love story between Nayeri and his girlfriend/wife/whatever Cortney, who may have been an innocent or may have been complicit. But Cortney isn’t present for interviews, so her perspective is absent.

So the documentary is imbalanced between its first and second halves and the second half is imbalanced between the perspective of an evasive on-camera subject and an absent secondary subject. And the big set-piece of the second half — a daring prison escape — is barely depicted at all.

Great story, though.

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