Anthony Weiner, as seen in Weiner (Sundance Selects)

Anthony Weiner, as seen in Weiner (Sundance Selects)

yellowstar Erstwhile politician Anthony Weiner is a man desperate not to be defined by his laughably juvenile, deservedly mocked sexting with political groupies. During the 2013 campaign for New York City mayor, he allowed two documentarians, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, to film him around the clock, resulting in this feature-length documentary.

The primary reason it exists, as the disgraced public servant says at the top of the film, is that he wants the world to realize that while yes, he did “do the thing” (the sexting scandals), he “did a lot of other things,” too. What those other things are remains unclear, as the film deals exclusively with the scandal. While entertaining, revealing, and occasionally funny, Weiner mostly serves to demonstrate the neuroses that drive people into politics, and it will give psychotherapists around the country, armchair and otherwise, ample fodder.

Throughout the 2013 mayoral campaign, the politician claimed that his big, fresh ideas about public policy motivated him to thrust himself back into the public spotlight after the first sexting scandal in 2011 while he was a congressman. One might have reasonably expected Weiner to produce his version of An Inconvenient Truth, sharing his knowledge and passion about an issue of special concern that was underrecognized, elevating it to a central place in the national discourse. But there is next to nothing of substance in the film, leading one to wonder if he wasn’t jamming himself back into the bright spotlight of New York City politics for a much simpler reason—it gets him off.

At the outset of the mayoral race, Weiner actually led on the Democratic side. He seemed to be routing his competition, a bunch of no-names, including the eventual winner, Bill de Blasio. We see an inspired, nearly manic Weiner running around various ethnic parades, waving flags, hollering, high-fiving, and more. For comparison, the film cuts to a beyond-anemic performance by de Blasio at the same parade, with close to zero passionate engagement with the public. It’s fascinating how deeply libidinal the whole political process is for Weiner—watching clips like this, it’s unclear how he released all that pent-up energy, but we can guess.

This early success was short-lived, however, due to the second wave of sexts, courtesy of an e-mistress named Sydney Leathers. She ended up on Howard Stern and everywhere else, eventually parlaying her infamy into a porno payday. Still, Weiner pressed on with his campaign until the inevitable crushing defeat. (He finished last among the Democratics, getting less than five percent of the vote.) Depending on your perspective, this is a testament either to his perseverance or his delusion. During the final slog, things really got ugly as the public humiliation reached a fever pitch, with the notorious tabloids, The Daily News and The New York Post, spending months rattling off punning headlines at Weiner’s expense.

After his career was derailed in 2011 by the first scandal, New Yorkers largely agreed to give Weiner a second chance, as evidenced by his early success in the mayoral contest two years later. After the second implosion, however, he was harangued on the streets and, infamously, in a Brooklyn bakery. When depicting the Herculean difficulties faced by Weiner’s communications director and top aides as the scandal hemorrhages, the film also approaches a sort of theater of the absurd, beyond even Veep or the Coen Brothers, with footage from a very combative interview in which Lawrence O’Donnell repeatedly and bluntly asks Weiner just what exactly is wrong with him. It couldn’t be clearer that something very much was.

Another alluring element is the behind-the-scenes access to Huma Abedin, Weiner’s wife, who has to deal with her husband’s behaviors (again) and the resulting political scandal (again). While their marriage seems to require a great deal of forgiveness, therapy, and self-delusion on their part, it manages to survive. The marital context helps to humanize the politician, as do the scenes of him walking around the city in the present-day, where he’s always more than willing to have encounters with the public. His realness on a street level, and his nerve in showing his face in public after going through such thorough humiliation, clearly strike a chord of respect among some New Yorkers.

By and large, New Yorkers still respect Anthony Weiner’s moxie. This doesn’t mean, of course, that they, or voters anywhere else, will soon support another of his political aspirations. He was given two chances, and then, by refusing to drop out of the mayor’s race, brazenly insisted on a third. Unfortunately for him, first chances are few and far between for most people, let alone a third.

Produced and Directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg
Written by Eli Despres, Kriegman, and Steinberg
Released by Sundance Selects
USA. 96 min. Rated R