The characteristics of Bill Plympton’s work — ballpoint pen drawings and grotesque characterizations — are instantly recognizable in Cheatin‘, showing at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood
‘, showing at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood

The animation of Bill Plympton is definitely an acquired taste. If you spent a lot of time watching MTV in its early days, you’re probably already familiar with his work: ballpoint pen drawn and long on grotesque characterization, it’s instantly recognizable, but tends to repulse as many viewers as it attracts. Pretty it is not.

Though he’s since done great work developing couch gags for ‘The Simpsons,” by and large I’ve never been much of a Plympton fan. The arrival of a new feature-length Plymptoon (Cheatin’, opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, April 17), however, provides me an opportunity to reassess his work.

Most animation incorporates exaggeration and overstatement, but few animators exaggerate or overstate as much – or as effectively – as Bill Plympton. His world is one where bodies elongate, expand, and shrink, where tears flow and fly like gigantic watery tennis balls, and where physical characteristics – breasts, waists, muscles, wrinkles – are taken to the extremest of extremes.

Cheatin’ is Plympton’s first feature in six or seven years, and it looks for all the world exactly the same as those MTV cartoons of 30 years ago. Featuring absolutely zero dialogue, the story revolves around Ella, a beautiful woman in a yellow sundress and voluminous straw hat who draws the attention of every red-blooded male she passes outside a local fun fair.

Plied with free tickets by a lecherous carny, our heroine succumbs to the temptation of a free ride on the bumper cars. It’s all jolly fun until a spilled soda causes the rink’s wiring to go haywire, and she finds herself at risk of electrocution – until burly gas station attendant Jake rescues her in the nick of time.

Jake is 100% alpha male: massively muscled, granite-jawed, of extremely small brain – and prone to tremendous jealousy. After a brief courtship, he and Ella set up house, where the two promptly take on all the traditional gender roles. She does the dishes and the laundry; he mows the lawn – shirtless, of course.

Alas, when Ella partakes in another stereotypical female activity — clothes shopping — a photographic misunderstanding causes Jake to believe she’s been unfaithful to him in the department store changing room. Enraged, he takes his revenge by beginning a series of nighttime affairs at the nearby EZ Motel, partaking himself of the eager and willing female customers for whom he, ahem, pumps gas by day.

The story is simple and slight (and also reliant on the aforementioned stereotyping, which Plympton isn’t endorsing but which will alienate some viewers nonetheless), and the film clocks in at a brief 76 minutes. Frankly, it’s possible to imagine Cheatin’ being even shorter, but the film doesn’t wear out its welcome. I still don’t count myself as a Plympton fan, but if you’re an admirer – or a fan of so-called ‘adult animation’ in general – you’ll want to check it out.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...