Based on her 2009 stage play of the same name, self-styled “philosopher-comic” Emily Levine’s darkly comic meditation on quantum physics and living with a slow-moving pituitary-gland disorder that causes varying degrees of disability and distortion of the hands, feet and face–is, against all odds, a genuinely funny and informative romp through science, history, politics and personal experience.
Levine “loves science” and “hates idiocy,” and she’s been thinking a lot about what’s been going on in these United States. Americans, she contends, are increasing rejecting facts in favor of stories that support their personal belief systems and prejudices, a “paradigm shift” that has her mighty worried about the state of the nation. But rest assured, this is emphatically not a long-winded lecture. Levine is a delight, someone you’d love to have at your dinner table. In fact, she looks a lot like a beloved and slightly-eccentric auntie–the one whose fashion sense is ’ex-hippie who knows how to pass as a respectable grown up’ and who loves to ambush folks who assume she’s just a sweet old gal by cutting through their nonsense with a wicked smile and a razor-sharp arsenal of fact-based opinions. Heaven help the host who tries to enforce the ‘no religion or politics’ rule when she’s at the dinner table.
Levine is also brutally honest: When she says she lost her mind on national TV, we see the footage: There Levine is, part of a roundtable of pundits on an episode of PBS’ Bill Moyers Journal, looking conspicuously vacant and not talking about the episode’s topic, ‘Democracy in Danger.’ A “brain fog set in,” she recalls, and in the footage she’s clearly not mentally present. Juxtaposed with new footage of an articulate, confident, knowledgeable woman in full control of her faculties and audience, it’s genuinely shocking.
To make Emily @ the Edge of Chaos sound like a filmed lecture would be to do it a terrible disservice, though Levine’s lecture style is in and of itself witty, engaging and slyly subversive. But the film augments it with vaguely Terry Gilliam-esque animated inserts that are both hugely entertaining in and of themselves and feature a formidable voice cast that includes Lily Tomlin, John Lithgow, Leonard Nimoy, Matt Groening and Bruce Vilanch and Richard Lewis as, respectively, Ayn Rand, Sir Isaac Newton, Sigmund Freud, conservationist Aldo Leopold, God and Aristotle. And a special mention the cartoon rendering of Rand as a leather-clad dominatrix/beauty-pageant queen complete with scepter, tiara and “Miss Libertarian” sash. The combination is thoroughly smart and engaging, worthy of Emily Levine herself.