' ' Cinema Romantico

Friday, June 14, 2024

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Big Fix (1978)


The title of Howard Hawks’s indispensable noir, and one of my all-time favorite movies, “The Big Sleep” (1946) refers to every person’s impending merging with the infinite. The title of Jeremy Kagan’s “The Big Fix” (1978), then, might refer to the inevitability of men’s souls being corrupted, or at least, corroded. Noir emerged as a kind of commentary on post-WWII America and so does this neo-noir based on a novel by Roger L. Simon emerges as commentary of post-60s America, following Moses Wine (Richard Dreyfuss), a one-time Berkeley radical who is now a private eye not so much down on his luck as divorced, indifferent, and tuned out to the larger world. He is drawn back in when his old girlfriend Lila Shea (Susan Anspach) knocks at his door one night and asks for help in uncovering who is setting up a candidate for governor of California with whom she is working, a variation on the femme fatale in so much as she tempts him with trouble by way of asking him to give a damn. At first, he takes it all as seriously as the game of Clue we briefly see him playing against himself, but when Lila winds up dead, things take a grave turn, in part, anyway, and Moses finds himself dragged through the various layers of political muck and mire, all pointing back toward a radical friend, Howard Eppis (F. Murray Abraham).

Like “The Big Sleep,” “The Big Fix” is as much about scenes, encounters, and quips as on solving the case. And it is all melded together by Dreyfuss playing a consummate smart-aleck but also unlikely master of disguise who never puts on a disguise at all, emblemized in the cast on his hand which becomes the source of recurring jokes, each one summarizing who at that moment he is sort of pretending to be. Moses resembles Ryan Gosling’s pithy PI of the 70s-set “The Nice Guys” but “The Big Fix” takes itself a little more seriously than that Shane Black comedy, maybe because the latter had a decided reactionary streak, pissing on idealists and radicals whereas “The Big Fix” mostly just wants to take the piss out of them. We rarely see the politician on which Lila and others pin so much hope, yet when we do, he sounds as bland and vacuous as any other politician, and when Moses finally tracks down the disappeared Howard Eppis, it turns out he is living in a fancy Los Angeles home with a pool, wielding a spatula at the grill like you imagine he once wielded a bullhorn. When they break into a singalong of the old protest song We Shall Not Be Moved, it comes across a little like an old counterculture band enthusiastically playing the hits on the free stage at a state fair. 

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Ranking Brat Packers I Would Most Like to Hang Out with in 2024


Much like bands deemed grunge detested the term, or filmmakers lumped in with the mumblecore movement often seemed to wish they had not been, monikers rarely go over well with the monikered. “It didn’t exist,” Andrew McCarthy insisted to The New York Observer in 1999 regarding the 1980s Hollywood clique famously called the Brat Pack to which the actor is often recognized as belonging. “I’ve never talked to a single one of them since we wrapped [St. Elmo’s Fire]! It’s all just some lazy fucking journalist lumping it all together.” The lazy fucking journalist to whom Mr. McCarthy referred was David Blum who first employed the term Brat Pack in a 1985 New York Magazine article. “It is to the 1980s what the Rat Pack was to the 1960s,” he wrote, “a roving band of famous young stars on the prowl for parties, women, and a good time.” By the next paragraph, though, Blum concedes that “(e)veryone in Hollywood differs over who belongs to the Brat Pack.”

Indeed, though the article cites Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, and Judd Nelson, all of whom the passage of time has shown to be generally accepted members of the Brat Pack, Blum also mentions, among others, Tom Cruise, Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Nicolas Cage, and Sean Penn as pending constituents. Andrew McCarthy only gets mentioned once and it’s in the context of other Brat Packers confessing they don’t think McCarthy will ever achieve true Brat Pack status. “He plays all his roles with too much of the same intensity,” some unnamed possible Brat Packer says. “I don’t think he’ll make it.” Au contraire!

Eight years later, though, the Brat Pack designation was already shifting with Marshall Fine of the Los Angeles Times noting that membership unofficially tied back to appearing in one of two 1980s movies, “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “The Breakfast Club.”  Maybe it was simply those movies cementing the idea of The Brat Back in everybody’s heads right at the moment Blum first dropped the term, and maybe it was others considered by Blum for Brat Packdom transcending the label when they got bigger, and maybe Hutton dodged the term by making “Turk 182” at just the wrong (right) time. Who knows? Nobody knows anything, including Andrew McCarthy, it turns out. The palpable fury with the term that comes through in McCarthy’s 1999 Observer interview has, it seems, become something else 25 years later in his recent op-ed for The New York Times: “Something that had cast such a long shadow over me, that I felt had obscured my identity and even clouded who I perceived to be, had transformed into something like a blessing.”

That goes a long way toward explaining why McCarthy has done a 180 and made a Brat Pack documentary being release today on Hulu. He wants to reconsider the experience with his newfound perspective. And hey, he’s not the only one. I, too, want to reconsider the Brat Pack with my newfound perspective. By which I mean, I want to mull over what members of the Brat Pack I would most want to hang out with here, now, in 2024, as a middle-aged man.


Ranking Brat Packers I Would Most Like to Hang Out with in 2024

8. Rob Lowe. Never mind the NFL hat meme, portending a vanilla conversationalist, or at least, a conversationalist who wants to appear vanilla lest he ruffle the wrong feathers. No, I’m most worried that Rob Lowe would spend the whole time trying to convert me to the Atkins Diet. No thank you, sir.

7. Anthony Michael Hall. I feel bad about this, in a way, because if I had been at Shermer High I probably would have been eating lunch with Brian Johnson even if I was in no way a “brain,” more of a “dweebie,” to quote Grace of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” because “brains” and “dweebies” still tended to wind up eating lunch together, at least, they did back in my day. And he’s not so low on this list just because there is some startling information at the bottom of his Wikipedia page that I don’t want to watch the link to YouTube to officially verify, though that doesn’t help, but because, well, I guess he’s the one I’ve wound up thinking about the least over the years. I feel like I’d just keep asking him about working with Uma Thurman on “Johnny B. Goode” and he’d get up and leave.

6. Demi Moore. It seems like Demi is in a perfect position to really dish on the industry in general, but I don’t know that she would want to dish.

5. Andrew McCarthy. I can’t help but say I’m intrigued by McCarthy’s reinvention as a travel writer; maybe he could provide helpful tips for a Swiss getaway? 

4. Judd Nelson. I feel like the two of us would mostly end up watching the Denver Nuggets / Houston Rockets game on the TV above the bar and really enjoying it. 

3. Emilio Estevez. I don’t mean to toot my own horn here, but I think Emilio and I would get along like gangbusters because everyone else would just want to ask him Brat Pack questions and I would just want to ask him about his directorial decision-making process on “Wisdom” and “Bobby.” Then again, I might get myself into trouble by asking about the Paula Abdul years. 

2. Molly Ringwald. She really seems to have emerged over the years as the most thoughtful of the Brat Pack.

1. Ally Sheedy. On some ineffable level, and more than any of the rest of them, no offense, Ally Sheedy has just always seemed cool. She wrote a book when she was a teenager, made a great 90s indie film, tried the stage, chose New York over Los Angeles, became a professor, she ebbed, she flowed, she left the band, so to speak, and went on to a distinguished if less high-profile solo career. I want to hang out with Molly Ringwald; I want to be Ally Sheedy’s friend.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

In Memoriam: Jeannette Charles


We originally published this post on September 20th, 2022 in the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s death at the age of 96. We republish it today to memorialize the British actress Jeannette Charles who died on June 2nd. She was also 96, one of those little ostensible coincidences that make me believe in a higher power more than any academic study of the divine.

Britain’s longest serving Monarch Queen Elizabeth II (Elizabeth Alexandra Mary) died last Thursday September 20th, 2022 at the age of 96 and was laid to rest yesterday in Windsor Castle. The state funeral at Westminster Abbey was as ornate as a title like Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith would lead you to expect, right down to Lord Chamberlain’s wand. Indeed, while I’m sure there was a real person in there, somewhere, behind Heading up the Commonwealth and Defending the Faith, Her Majesty The Queen was a symbol, first and foremost. “The institution of hereditary kingship is irrational and impractical,” Rebecca Mead made clear in The New Yorker, “sustained in the present era only through a willful combination of public pageantry and concealed mystery.” It’s why even if Claire Foy and Olivia Colman both won Emmys for playing the Queen and even if Helen Mirren won an Oscar for playing “The Queen” too, the most indelible portrayal of Her Majesty remains, of course, as everyone knows, Jeannette Charles in “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” 

Her role, really, is to be the butt of the joke, over and over, laying siege to her indispensable courtliness, but I don’t mean this as an insult to the Britons. Why the scene in which she winds up, uh, under Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) on the banquet table just goes to show why Elizabeth wanted to not televise her 1953 coronation in the first place...who knew what could go wrong?! More than that, though, by not really having a role beyond The Queen Becomes Victim Of Hijinks, she remains a mystery while being shuffled through an array of ridiculous Yank-styled pageantry, all of which Charles, who made a career out of her resemblance to Elizabeth II, plays with a proper Buster Keaton-ish stone face. I mean, the scene in the Abbey in Season 1 of “The Crown” when Foy and Matt Smith as Philip spar over Phil’s having to kneel is all well and good when it comes to demonstrating the weight of the Royal image, but nothing cuts to the heart of the all-important and endless Royal ceremoniousness tedium than Charles in “The Naked Gun” being handed a hot dog at Angel Stadium in the ballpark frank version of a bucket brigade, matter-of-factly regarding it as the Queen might have some commemorative Fountain of Youth dish towels bestowed upon her by the Mayor of St. Augustine, Florida, and just sending the damn thing on down the line. 


Monday, June 10, 2024

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga


As the fifth movie in director George Miller’s 45-year-old “Mad Max” series, “Furiosa” functions as a prequel to the preceding “Fury Road” (2015) by showing how its protagonist, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), reached the point of that film’s inciting incident. It’s an audacious, if not dangerous, game that Miller is playing. He is not only forcing himself to slalom between required story points, imposing artificial limits on storytelling imagination, but that in making a movie of Imperator Furiosa’s backstory, he is essentially competing against the imaginations of the audience. Like “Solo: A Star Wars” story could never hope to convey the Millennium Falcon making the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs as electrically as we had already seen it in our dreams, there is no way Furiosa losing her arm could be rendered to satisfy our preconceived imagery, right? Well...

“Furiosa” begins in The Green Place, a striking contrast to the surrounding unfertile wasteland. It is a paradise, but it is a paradise lost as the youthful eponymous character (Alyla Browne) ventures too far to pick a peach and is snatched by a pair of bikers seeking to present her as a prize to their vainglorious leader, Doctor Dementus (Chris Hemsworth). It won’t be that easy, though, and Furiosa’s mother Mary (Charlee Fraser) goes after her, a magnificent, curtain-raising stop and start chase across the desert in which the overmatched bikers confront the limitless intensity of the maternal instinct. Though she reaches her daughter, she can’t quite save her, nor herself, triggering a quest for vengeance similar to the first “Mad Max” but with a feminine bent.

Eschewing the saga’s typical spare, straight-forward storytelling style, “Furiosa” skews more novelistic, evoked in its chapter headings, and how it spends considerable time on the budding war between Dementus and Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme), the warlord of “Fury Road.” Furiosa winds up in both their possessions at different times, and the camera always remains cognizant of her, innately reminding us that she remains the nexus of this story amid so much male jockeying. Eventually, she escapes and “Furiosa” flashes ahead 15 years, breathlessly recounted in a time lapse of a tree branch that hearkens back to the beginning and foreshadows the ending. (Anya Taylor-Joy also assumes the lead role.) She joins Immortan Joe’s army by posing as a mute boy, a wry twist on the Mulan legend in which she deceives to save her own life, and then falls in with the war rig crew of the Max stand-in Praetorian Joe (Tom Burke) as she hones the necessary skills to complete her quest.

There are moments during all this palace intrigue when “Furiosa” assumes the air of something closer to a sword and sandals epic; Dementus even seems to have emerged from one. Illustrating how Miller continues to lack for no inventiveness where modes of locomotion are concerned, he sends Dementus parading around the desert in a chariot led by motorcycles. (Dementus is also costumed for a while in a vest striking a dirty, wannabe Napoleon aesthetic.) The character, though, is never so grand, played by Hemsworth as a virtual parody of an alpha male, Uday Hussein-like, a psychopath and a dum dum who thinks of himself as bigger than life and blames everything on everybody else.

Dementus’s bluster is a useful juxtaposition against Furiosa’s preternatural self-possession, evinced as ably by Alyla Browne as the young Furiosa as it is by Anya Taylor-Joy as the older version. Taylor-Joy’s big, bright white eyes have always been ready and waiting for a movie director to truly harness their power and Miller is him, epitomizing the movie screen as a canvas for the human face as much as anything else, continually locking in on Taylor-Joy’s with straight-ahead shots blurring the pesky fourth wall by ineffably opening up a line directly between us and her. What Taylor-Joy’s turn lacks in the depth of Theron’s, it more than makes up for in a fathomless primal urge. 


Despite the occasional narrative meandering, action remains paramount, the great scene that opens it, the great one culminating it, and the showstopper taking place right in the middle when Furiosa stows away beneath Praetorian Joe’s gas tanker making the death-defying journey across Fury Road. Stowaway to Nowhere, this chapter is called, and as attackers swoop in and Joe’s crew drops like flies all around him, Furiosa is the rock that doesn’t roll in daringly making her way from beneath the war rig to the front seat, graduating from survivor to warrior. There is even more CGI creep here than “Fury Road,” but the composition remains first rate, the sequence as easy to understand as it is overpowering while the non-verbal communication between Furiosa and Joe registers every changing emotion. When the sequence suddenly ends and goes quiet, it takes a moment to gather yourself, as if you are Wile E. Coyote pulling yourself out from the under anvil that just went splat right on top of you. 

If initially Joe prevents Furiosa’s chance to hijack the tanker and point it toward The Green Place, his presence and their subsequent relationship becomes a bulwark against the vastness and loneliness of this world. And that relationship becomes a rejection of the creeping nihilism in a post-apocalyptic world. That is even truer in the denouement. When Furiosa finally confronts Dementus, it is an action scene transmogrified as a primal roar – and I mean that, a roar, the earthshaking sound design a manifestation of the observation that Furiosa is “the fifth rider of the apocalypse.” After this buildup, though, when Furiosa finally gets her say with Dementus, there is, at least for a while, a dog that caught the car sensation in so much as the elongated nature of the sequence seems to suggest that “Furiosa” itself doesn’t quite know what to do now. But that’s not true. It’s more like Furiosa herself doesn’t quite know what to do, suddenly confronted with something existential rather than emotional, and unexpectedly pointing a way toward life rather than death.

Friday, June 07, 2024

Friday's Old Fashioned: The French Connection (1971)


This coming Monday, June 10th, the city of Chicago will rename 5855 to 5920 North Ridge Avenue in the Edgewater neighborhood, near Senn High School, as Honorary William Friedkin Way
 

Neil deGrasse Tyson would have been 13 years old when “The French Connection” was released in 1971, and living in the Bronx, not the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn where William Friedkin filmed his movie’s legendary car chase. Yet, I was tickled to recently learn that critics of the faux deGrasse Tyson style of film criticism pledging fealty to reality above else already existed. In April 1972, Friedkin received a letter from Bensonhurt resident Dr. Pearl Wiesen regarding “the contrivances in the name of dramatic license…apparent to us who knew the area.” Friedkin politely responded via his own letter:

“If I was making the film just for Bensonhurst, I would, perhaps, have erred on the side of the accuracy, but the film was made for a worldwide audience, most of which has never even heard of Bensonhurst. The key to a successful sequence like the chase is allusion. In this respect, it is not unlike magic. The lady doesn’t really get sawed in half, the rabbit doesn’t really appear out of thin air, and two trains on the Transit System seldom have such a collision. But what a dull chase it would have been had I stuck to what was probable....If the picture had been intended or presented as a documentary, an audience would have every right to feel cheated.” 

It’s amusing, of course, if not noble, at least from a certain point-of-view, but that last line ultimately feels even a little revealing. As Friedkin himself once noted, the key to “The French Connection” was realizing he could marry documentary techniques not just with a work of fiction but with a fictive action-thriller. In other words, the magic to which Friedkin refers is in “The French Connection” is frighteningly real. The esteemed Roger Ebert once proffered a variation on Friedkin’s observation, noting that if you want a movie to “all be plausible in hindsight, you’re probably disappointed when a magician doesn’t saw a real person in half and leave a severed corpse on the stage.” Considering Friedkin shot his chase scene without permits and on uncontrolled streets, it was maybe as close as we’ll come to that severed corpse. 

The 1971 Academy Award winner for Best Picture was based on a real-life heroin smuggling ring, though Friedkin and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman are not hung up on the details, preferring to reduce the movie down to its very essence: cops versus drug dealers. If it’s not a 104-minute movie entirely as a chase, it comes as close as might be possible, beginning with a chase and ending with a chase and crafting almost everything in-between as a game of cat and mouse between NYPD narcotics detectives Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider) and their wily target Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), referred to as a frog, merely one of several derogatory terms deployed by the cops marking them as decided anti-heroes. Friedkin utilized a whopping 89 locations, turning the accompanying portrait of early 70s NYC urban blight into something like an urban jungle, evincing an innate feeling of lawlessness underlining the borderline lawless methods of the detectives. Yet as out of control as the characters get, Friedkin’s filmmaking never does, demonstrating a crucial sense of space with his shots so that nothing ever becomes confusing, utilizing all manner of zooms to show where the perps and their pursuers are in relation to one another, a virtual ballet under grey skies on cement.  


Though the relentless forward momentum of the chase suggests there is little time for character to emerge, it is noteworthy just how effectively Friedkin combines character details with the procedural elements, like a zoom from a French restaurant where the villains eat to a staked-out Popeye across the street, taking one sip of coffee and then dumping it on the ground, his liquid swill juxtaposed against their lavish feast. And Freidkin sets a familiar scene of Popeye’s superior seeking to shut down his investigation alongside the Henry Hudson Parkway where a violent crash has occurred. Brief images of bloody bodies crossed with Popeye’s almost bloodthirsty selfishness lays it all bare.

His renegade nature, though, is never harsher than the car chase in which Popeye tracks his would-be assassin on a runaway elevated train by car just below the train track. It has to be the greatest car chase in movie history, all personal predilections aside, for how it is not in any way about effects or thrills but existing as a virtual extension of Popeye. Scheider does not have as much to work with in terms of character yet deftly creates an indelible one, nonetheless, assuming an almost zombie-eyed state for some scenes, pulled along in the fanatical wake of his partner, brought to vivid life by Hackman, making the most of every single available moment. In one small but indelible scene where Cloudy finds Popeye handcuffed to his bed, Hackman modifies his famed chuckle to unlock unexpected depth, or lack thereof, more accurately, rendering his character as dumb as a box of rocks. Popeye subsumes his partner, the police force, and in the car chase, even the city. When he commandeers a vehicle to go after the train, a Neil deGrasse Tyson, or a Dr. Pearl Weisen might wonder what happened to that vehicle’s owner, bleakly if comically left twisting in the wind. But that doesn’t matter because Popeye doesn’t care.

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

My 5 Favorite Scenes from Baseball Movies

A couple weeks ago on his blog, er, Substack, Joe Posnanski fielded a question from a brilliant reader, as he deems them, asking after his five favorite scenes from baseball movies. Posnanski, however, let his own brilliant reader’s five favorite scenes from baseball movies – one from “Field of Dreams,” one from “The Natural,” one from “League of their Own,” two from “Eight Men Out” – settle the matter and gave his five favorite baseball references from the celebrated FX show “The Bear,” including the scene from the lost 90s indie holiday movie “Fishes” where baseball cards are discussed and some guys are literally remembered. One of the guys, it should be noted, was Jay Buhner, meaning both “The Bear” and “Seinfeld” include references to Jay Buhner, apparently the hallmark of a truly great TV show. Anyway. Posnanski said the rest of his brilliant readers could hash out their favorite baseball scenes in the comments, and though I suppose I pay to read his blog, er, Substack for that privilege, I don’t do really do comment sections, and besides, I’ve got my own blog, I thought, I could just do my five favorite baseball scenes here. Ergo, a list that I feel confident AI could not have hatched.   

My 5 Favorite Scenes from Baseball Movies


5. Bull Durham. It might be more of a moment, really, than a scene, but Kevin Costner’s introduction as Minor League journeyman Crash Davis is iconic, not merely one of the best character intros in movie genre but in movies in general, bringing to life an arcane bit of baseball terminology in the most colorfully droll way possible. 


4. Field of Dreams. This is not a baseball scene, but it is a scene in a baseball movie, which as far as I am concerned, still counts. And whatever you think of the pie in the sky belief system, deliberately hokey storytelling, or the left-handed Shoeless Joe Jackson batting right-handed, as events concerning book banning in my native state have demonstrated, that scene in the high school gymnasium where Amy Madigan indulges her inner-60s radical is essentially a documentary.


3. Sugar. On the other hand, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Sugar,” which has emerged over the years as my favorite baseball movie, is also partially set in rural Iowa where a Dominican baseball product named Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) comes to play in the minor leagues. There is a recurring joke in which he orders French toast because he does not know how to order anything else, like eggs, because he can’t specify what kind of egg. So, the server (Marla Finn) brings him a plate with all the egg options and explains what each one is, a recurring joke transforming into an olive branch. In my considerable experience, the phrase Iowa nice is not as overall in accordance with reality as its proponents would suggest, but neither is it entirely mythological, and this moment taken in tandem with the previous one demonstrates the flip side to Iowa. 


2. Major League. A winning team is fun, that goes without saying, but as I have aged and become fonder of regular season baseball’s feeling and rhythm than the postseason’s, I have also become more intrigued by losing baseball teams, the ones that have to muster up just enough to slog through August and September when they are 25 games out of first place. And so more than Rick Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) getting the climactic strikeout post “Wild Thing” walkout, the sequence that I have always loved most in David S. Ward’s 1989 comedy is Rick Vaughn’s first appearance on the mound in which he walks the bases loaded on 12 pitches, surrenders a grand slam, plunks a guy, and triggers a brawl. It is a virtual comic symphony courtesy of editor Dennis M. Hill in which each cut maximizes the humor and Bob Uecker ties the whole thing together by riffing on the local announcer’s duty to try and maintain a little optimism in the face of certain defeat.


1. The Naked Gun. Uh oh. Real existential question here. Is “The Naked Gun” a baseball movie, or is it merely a movie that ends with a baseball sequence? Well, if the Major League Baseball Network is any guide, which re-runs “The Naked Gun,” like, every weekend, then it absolutely is. Besides, I would argue the concluding baseball sequence is so overpowering that in real time it remolds “The Naked Gun” into a baseball movie, sort of like how Taylor Swift remolded every Kansas City Chief game last year into a platform for her own stardom. If humor is truth then the climax of “The Naked Gun” proves it, getting to the truth of baseball in a way no callow drama ever could by ribbing on things as small as spitting and TV’s penchant for filling booths with too many talking heads and as big as insistence on regimental pageantry (see above), umpires who make themselves the star of the show, and good old fashioned American bloodlust by way of a brawl (if not also a few sports bloopers), its status as America’s Pastime enlarged by having it all play out in front of Queen Elizabeth II (Jeannette Charles), take it or leave it, Your Majesty.

Monday, June 03, 2024

LaRoy, Texas

Shane Atkinson’s semi-comic neo-noir “LaRoy, Texas” opens with Harry (Dylan Baker) picking up a hitchhiker whose car has broken down on some desolate highway. At first, Harry is reluctant to stop, then apprehensive once he does, and once the hitchhiker gets in the car, he exudes a menacing air. This is what we expect, of course, and this is why the sequence is designed to test our expectations, as the whole thing flips, and the opposite turns out to be true. Harry is a crucial character in the ensuing movie, but this comes across like a standalone prologue, nonetheless, introducing “LaRoy, Texas’s” overriding idea that appearances can be deceiving. A hoary chestnut, true, and “LaRoy, Texas” is not here to reinvent Lone Star barbecue, sort of semi-reimagining The Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” as “No Country for Schmucks,” or something. It’s never to the level of that movie, but often enjoyable enough in its own right, a murder mystery in which the mystery is essentially right in the open, turning it into something else, a question of character, though for that one, “LaRoy, Texas” doesn’t quite have an answer.


Harry has come to LaRoy to kill a local businessman in exchange for a few thousand dollars. Through a misunderstanding, meek hardware store owner Ray (John Magaro) gets offered the job instead and takes it even if he is so unqualified for the task that upon buying a gun, he finds himself clarifying that he needs a short one. Frequently costumed in a standard-issue hardware store polo and played by Magaro with drooped posture and a voice as perpetual whine, he wants to prove he’s not the schmo he is assumed to be by everyone, including his own wife, Stacy-Lynn (Megan Stevenson), a one-time beauty queen who is cheating on him with his own brother (Matthew Del Negro). If it seems questionable that a former beauty queen might end up married to Ray, “LaRoy, Texas” smartly saves that explanation for late, reducing it to one line that is a gut punch, re-calibrating everything Ray thought he know. Even more crucially, that one line evokes how people just sort of sit on difficult truths, content to keep them emotionally buried.

Stacy-Lynn also dreams of opening a hair salon, and so Ray sees the cash offered from the case of mistaken identity as a conduit to financing her business and saving his marriage, desperation comingling with foolishness. It’s a ridiculous thought on his half, of course, and Atkinson treats it that way, portraying Ray tailing his target from place to place in pitifully comic terms, like a dog chasing a car, and once he comes face to face with his target, not really having any idea what to do. A struggle ensues and he kills the businessman more from self-defense than on purpose, completing the job on accident, essentially, but also leaving behind a photo of his wife, inadvertently getting her charged with the killing. And all the while, Harry hovers on the periphery, like Anton Chigurh of “No Country for Old Men” if Anton Chigurh looked like an insurance adjustor.

Ray’s unwanted and overeager co-detective is Skip (Steve Zahn), dressing in a bolo tie and cowboy hat for the job he technically has, private detective, even though he hardly qualifies as one, as intent on proving his credentials as Ray is at proving he’s not a pushover. Their emergent friendship is the movie’s best element, personified in a ham-handed interrogation scene in which Skip keeps dunking their interrogee’s head in a toilet, causing him to pass out, and then needing Ray, the only one of the two who knows CPR, to resuscitate him. It’s also evocative of how “LaRoy, Texas” blurs comedy and tragedy to the breaking point; after all, Ray is, in effect, attempting to solve a murder he committed, the wrongfully accused trope turned on its head. Ultimately, though, “LaRoy, Texas” cannot quite decide which one it truly is, comedy or tragedy, its character the butt of a cosmic joke or someone sealing his own fate, and rather than run out of gas, it just kind of comes to a fork in the road, shrugs, and sits down in the middle.