The idea that sacrifice is necessary for success, that effort and expense are required to turn one’s velleity into reality, has long been encapsulated with admirable concision by the epigrammatic aphorism “No pain, no gain.” Here is a film that takes this expression to new lengths, in the most literal sense possible. The Brass Teapot of the title is a curious work of alchemy, a vessel that produces money seemingly out of thin air — the catch is that it only does so when the person in possession of it injures him- or herself. It’s a fascinating question: just how much pain are you willing to endure for material gain?
The mysterious teapot dates back to the first century; since then, we are told, it has belonged to kings, queens, peasants, priests, despots, and innumerable other men and women across the globe. Most recently, however, it has fallen into the hands of the Macys, a young couple from Indiana for whom such a profitable trinket couldn’t have come at a better time. John Macy (Michael Angarano) is a telemarketer, both overqualified and under-motivated, whose slim paycheck barely covers the rent; his wife Alice (Juno Temple), who has neither her Masters nor professional experience, is unable to parlay her Art History degree into a job of any sort. They subsist on buy-one-get-one take-out coupons and sunny dispositions. At least they have each other to come home to.
Their insolvency is spotlit by Alice’s high school friend Payton (Alexis Bledel), who made up for her intellectual deficits by riding a wave of nepotism straight into a six-figure salary and an ostentatious McMansion on the opulent side of town. Attending a party for Payton, John and Alice are taken aback by the profusive swank of her new lifestyle; underdressed and insecure, they make a beeline for the open bar where they run into their friends Louise and Chuck (Alia Shawkat and Bobby Moynihan), the only other workaday blue-collar types in the room, and avail themselves of as many libations as their poor livers can tolerate.
The next morning, feeling more than a little hungover, John and Alice are distraught to find their refrigerator barren. On the way to the supermarket, their Pinto is hit from the side by a truck hurtling down the intersecting road; the stop sign at the corner appears to have been cleanly sawn off its post. John and Alice are unhurt and their car still runs, but before they leave, Alice dips inside an antique shop at the intersection after she notices the proprietor, a frail elderly woman with long white hair, carrying an unusual and striking brass teapot inside. When the shopkeeper turns her back to answer the phone, Alice, completely smitten, runs out with the teapot.
The next day, while looking through the classifieds for work, Alice accidentally burns herself with her curling iron, which inexplicably causes the teapot to shudder. When she opens the lid, she finds a crisp hundred dollar bill. She places the curling iron against her scalp again; the teapot produces several hundred more dollars. Stubbing her toe, punching the wall, anything that causes her pain yields immediate remuneration. John, meanwhile, arrives at work to find out that he is the first in a series of layoffs the company is being forced to make. He returns home, shocked to find blood splatters and broken furniture scattered about his living room; he rushes to Alice, unconscious on the bed, afraid they have been robbed. When Alice awakens, she assures him that she is fine and that, furthermore, he doesn’t need to worry about securing another job. When she demonstrates the teapot’s magical powers, John is first incredulous, then pusillanimous about the possible repercussions of such an unorthodox and remarkable item.
The next morning, John rises early, absconding with the teapot while Alice is still asleep. When he discovers signs reading “Closed” and “For Lease” hanging upon the boarded up antique shop, he reluctantly returns to his car. Recalling that Alice had mentioned that the Antiques Roadshow was in town, he brings the teapot to a taping, where he is told simply that it is an exquisite, one of a kind piece, the likes of which have never been seen before, and estimate its value at five thousand dollars. John returns home with the teapot, and he and Alice resolve to use it only to make enough money to get out of debt and into a better home; as they inflict minor to moderate pain upon themselves and each other, the kitty increases and it looks like it won’t be long until they reach and surpass their goal of a million dollars.
Their enthusiasm wanes somewhat when two hasidic Jewish men arrive at their doorstep and pummel John, having seen him on television with the teapot. Alice lies and tells them that they sold the teapot after taking on Antiques Roadshow, and gives them five thousand dollars to leave them alone. Somewhat shaken, John and Alice nonetheless continue to build their lucre — through tattoos, unanesthetized dental work, and some light S&M — eventually moving out of their decrepit rented home and into a grand estate, right next door to Payton and her husband Ricky (Ben Rappaport). Before long, John and Alice are thoroughly enmeshed in the extravagant ways of the wealthy, much to the dismay of Louise and Chuck.
As they become spoiled by their luxury, however, the teapot begins to lose its efficacy, spitting out measly ones and fives where once it spewed forth seemingly limitless C-notes. Suddenly, the teapot takes greater satisfaction in the suffering of other, whether it be physical or psychological. Alice has no scruples about watching others suffer, and as long as all it entails is sitting front-row at an MMA match, everything seems fine; but once her greed gets the better of her, voraciously seeking out and targeting friends and family for emotional torment, John’s compunction won’t allow him to continue. It isn’t long before Alice and John are pitted against one another, hurling admissions and insults both real and exaggerated to line their already well-padded coffers.
For all of the fantasy of its basic premise, The Brass Teapot does a good job of grounding itself in the very real, very universal dilemma of emotional versus practical prioritization. A great deal of this is thanks to the wonderful performances of Temple and Angarano, who have a natural, aloof chemistry; you believe that this is a couple that not only has been together since high school, but one which has been able to weather its contextual hardships simply through charm and mutual admiration. When, by the third act, they turn on one another, we feel the sting of both revelation and admission. Temple, in particular — one of the most interesting, alluring, and downright talented actresses of her generation — deserves immense credit for taking a character who, in lesser hands, could have easily been unsympathetic (if not, at times, completely self-involved and downright mean) and humanizing her to the point that we feel something like compassion for her in spite of (or, perhaps, precisely because of) how easily she allows her avarice to get the better of her.
Making their feature film debut, director Ramaa Mosley and screenwriter Tim Macy have done an admirable job expanding their short film of the same name into a lighthearted fable that thankfully has enough wit and wisdom to not belabor its absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely premise. Mosley and Macy let things get dark, but not hopeless, and a string of amusing cameos from the likes of Matt Walsh, Steve Park, and an uncredited Jack McBrayer perfectly complement an already outstanding ensemble. Never too outlandish, never too preachy, this is the sort of finely-calibrated high-concept comedy that few filmmakers attempt and fewer still achieve with this level of aplomb. The Brass Teapot conjures just the right mix of whimsy, warmth, and integrity, a grown-up fantasia about real-world concerns.