Atlanta Film Festival Review: What’s Eating Ralphie May?

Score: B-

Director: Cat Rhinehart

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rated: NR

Ralphie May was one of the most gifted comedians to emerge in the 2000s. A larger-than-life presence, he could easily navigate between relatable observations, self-deprecating anecdotes and absolutely filthy jokes. But the old adage turned out to be true: Some of the funniest people are crying on the inside. What's Eating Ralphie May? is an extremely intimate portrait of a tortured soul and the hell he put his family and himself through in the last years of his life. But while May was a fascinating figure, there's not enough material here to justify a feature-length documentary.

The major focus of the documentary is May's relationship with his wife Lahna Turner, a fellow comedian. Their love story is endearing, and even with some of the horrible things we see and hear them say to each other, their love for one another and their two kids runs deep. In the years before his death, May had lost almost half his size thanks to weight loss surgery. But he was still more than 300 pounds, and his size was taking a toll on his body. While his vitals showed a healthy man, externally he was breaking down, constantly exhausted and nursing an infected foot. He self-medicated with food, pot and opioids.

A lot of the movie is repetitive. May understandably complains about missing his wife and kids when he's out touring (which is much of the year). But when May is at home or the family joins him on the road, he's almost always sleeping, barely coherent when he's awake. Turner is understandably upset that he's wasting their valuable family time. Unfortunately, it doesn't make for compelling viewing. A trial separation isn't surprising in the least.

Still, there are moments that are undeniably heartbreaking. In one long interview with May, interspersed throughout the doc, he threatens to commit suicide by negligence: "I'll stop taking my Xarelto and let my blood thicken up and I'll get a clot." And hearing May's daughter sing "The Rainbow Connection" after his death caused me to tear up. It's tragic that someone who brought so many people so much joy was so self-destructive. He was a big presence, but his story would have been much more effective if it were a short.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.