The word “penis” (and penises themselves) bring out the snickering child in just about everyone. So one of the many remarkable qualities of Sigurdur “Siggi” Hjartarson, the subject of the funny, surprisingly moving documentary The Final Member, is his ability to discourse extensively about his life’s work—collecting, curating, and displaying the penises of various animals in the world’s only penis museum—with stone-faced solemnity, and an almost evangelical sense of purpose.
Hjartarson, an educator and translator with a wide variety of intellectual interests, concedes that the museum began as a goofy lark, but evolved into something serious and important. Hjartarson is a passionate, brilliant obsessive in the Errol Morris mold, fixated on his legacy and with tracking down the final addition that will complete his Icelandic Phallological Museum, and by extension, his life: tracking down and preserving a human penis to display for posterity.
The two men Hjartarson finds who are not only willing, but pathologically eager, to share their penises with the world are even more obsessed with their legacies than he is. The ancient, cherubic Páll Arason is introduced as one of the most famous and distinguished personalities in Iceland; he’s a famed adventurer who has maintained an air of impish mischievousness well into his 90s. Arason’s sexual travails have made him a legend in Iceland, where he’s regarded as the consummate womanizer, with conquests in the hundreds.
Arason’s fame and Icelandic heritage give him a big competitive advantage over his primary rival in this strange competition: Tom Mitchell, a strapping American who can’t stop talking about the beauty, size, and majesty of “Elmo”—his impressive, albeit non-famous penis. Mitchell talks about Elmo with the kind of pride and openness most people reserve for discussing the achievements of their grandchildren. Mitchell sees his penis as a source for American pride; in a telling indication of what’s to come, he even has its head tattooed with a patriotic red, white, and blue design.
Arason brings fame to the table; Mitchell is convinced that with the right moves, savvy planning, and presentation, he can make his penis famous, and he even begins the process of creating a comic-book series featuring a superhero penis. Mitchell is, in other words, a big dick about his big dick, and he quickly, thoroughly alienates Hjartarson with his intensity and his constant calls, emails, and ideas about how his penis should be displayed.
The Final Member begins as a fascinating character study about Hjartarson, a bear-like man of prodigious intellectual gifts, and his strange quest to procure the detached phallus that would complete his legacy. But it’s eventually hijacked by Mitchell, who is so intent on winning fame for Elmo and inspiring people with his penis that he’s willing, even eager, to have it cut off while he’s alive, so it makes it into the museum first.
Why would a man so proud of his penis want it removed? The Final Member doesn’t conclusively answer that question, though the explanations Mitchell eventually provides to the people he wants to do the surgery offer a heartbreaking glimpse into the sadness of his life, even as they cast doubt on his honesty and mental health. By the end of the film, Hjartarson and Arason, who frets about the possible implications of his wrinkly, shrunken 96-year-old penis representing him and his legacy of womanizing, can’t help but seem like rational, mild-mannered souls by comparison.
Directors Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math favor a deadpan, clear-eyed, strikingly simple approach that brings out both the humor and the pathos in the story. The filmmakers understand that the story they’re telling doesn’t need augmentation. They simply lay out the facts and let their small but utterly fascinating cast do their work for them.
Elmo has more personality than the human subjects of most documentaries; it may never become the star of Mitchell’s child-like imagination, but it certainly has a hell of an interesting history, and even its own film vehicle, in a sense. The Final Member begs to be remade as a narrative comedy in the Christopher Guest vein. The only problem is that no one would believe it. Even when ripped from real life, this too-strange-for-fiction tale would still seem unrealistic.