Sunday, 1 June 2014

SMALL TIME - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Levinson-Lite Covina-coming-of-age tale on used car lot has merit.

Christopher Meloni, Devon Bostick & Dean Norris have a deal for YOU!

Dean Norris & Christopher Meloni:
All the right (shyster) moves.
Small Time (2014) ***
Dir. Joel Surnow
Starring: Christopher Meloni, Dean Norris, Devon Bostick, Bridget Moynahan, Xander Berkeley, Ashley Jensen, Amaury Nolasco, Ken Davitian, Gregory Itzin, Kevin Nealon, Carlo Rota

Review By Greg Klymkiw

It's a gas seeing a pair of clip artist pros hawking used cars to gullible dupes. It's even more fun watching a young man failing miserably on the same sales lot, but eventually absorbing the borderline conman routines and matching the elder statesmen of sleazy shark attacks. Long before Joel Surnow's feature debut Small Time, Robert Zemeckis claimed this territory in the 1980 black comedy Used Cars. That once-daring critical darling has not, however, stood the test of time and these days feels even more shrill and chaotic than when it first came out.

Surnow, the co-creator of the TV series 24, here delivers an amiable picture that has far more in common with the subtle work of Barry Levinson (Tin Men, Avalon) than the shake-you-by-the-lapels Zemeckis. His screenplay isn't as sharp and darkly-tinged though and often feels like Barry-Levinson-Lite. For much of the picture, this works just fine and dandy, but when it doesn't, the results are a trifle disappointing. If anything, it feels like Surnow's TV-pedigree rears its soft by-the-numbers head and yanks us too willingly into the kind of familiar territory that might be more palatable on a small screen, its stakes and eventual story morphing into the convenience and comfort levels boob-tube viewers are perfectly happy to accept.

Al (Christopher Meloni) and Ash (Dean Norris) are longtime friends and partners in Diamond Motors. They value their modest hustles as being just enough to live lives of laid-back comfort. They might be sales barracudas, but their teeth are self-blunted. They're slothfully ambitious in their goals and happily so. Al's been long divorced from his first love Barbara (Bridget Moynahan) who dumped him for Chick (Xander Berkeley), a conservative venture capitalist type who offered a far more stable, comfortable existence, especially for the ex-couple's son Freddy (Devon Bostick). It's a pleasant surprise for Al, but a shocker for Barbara and Chick when Freddy reveals he's more a chip off the old block than anyone imagined. Upon graduating from High School, the young man decides not to go to college and instead, wants to try his hand as a used car salesman to gain the life experience he so desperately craves, but mostly to re-establish the close relationship he hasn't had with Dad since early childhood.

For the most part, this is so far so good. The picture introduces us, through Freddy's eyes, the irascible existence of Al and Ash, on and off the used car lot. The latter activities are as equally engaging as the sales shenanigans - Freddy trolling sleazy singles bars with Ash and hanging with Dad at the old-style Covina, California transplanted Jewish Deli where we're privy to the rapid-fire schtick of other salesmen (magnificently acted by Ken Davitian, Gregory Itzin, Kevin Nealon), all of whom are equally devoted to the art of the legal con game.

Where things get a trifle by-the-numbers are the expected moments where Al becomes alarmed that his son is picking up far too many bad habits and a cynical worldview. Dad begins to imagine his fresh-faced progeny, ending up like himself, Ash and the guys at the deli. This is compounded further when Freddy begins to assert his own huckster ideas to expand the business. Al is faced with the realization that maybe, just maybe, his son should go to college and leave the life on the lot behind.

The events of the picture's final third are meant to provide added conflict and a more satisfying resolution for all concerned, but it's where the movie goes a bit off-kilter. At first, one assumes Al has an underlying element of jealousy creeping into his response to Freddy's desires to take a more active hand in shaping the next phase of Dominion Motors. Alas, this is not the case and a potentially interesting father-son dynamic is ignored for a more un-earned sentimental direction. It's hard to buy and even harder to take. Someone like Al would actually see the merits in Freddy's marketing ideas, but would in fact, respond negatively to them for reasons other than wanting a better life for the kid. Sure, that would be part of it, but not the be-all-end-all. Instead of a far deeper conflict, we get a TV dramedy-styled tussle and the results feel like they belong in another film and medium.

In spite of this ho-hum turn, many might well find it dramatically satisfying - a sort of spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down as opposed to the more natural direction a "cookie laced with arsenic" might provide. At the end of the day, Small Time is an intelligent, nicely acted and well-observed look at the world of men like Al, Ash and even Freddy. It falls short, however in taking us into the territory the aforementioned Barry Levinson might have plunged us into. It's a world I miss seeing on film. Given the near straight-to-home-entertainment life the picture wound up in, one wonders if it might have found a more happy home theatrically and then into home consumption if it had girded its loins and instead entered more dangerous territory.

Small Time is available on Blu-Ray and DVD via Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada (and Anchor Bay in the USA). The movie's southern California light and colours - inside and out - are nicely captured for both formats. The biggest disappointment is the commentary track provided by Surnow and his leading male actors. It is so utterly inconsequential and irredeemably jokey I'm glad I waited a few days to experience the film with it. In spite of the picture's flaws, I really enjoyed it, but might have soured to the experience if I'd listened to the nonsensical chatter following too closely on the heels of seeing the movie. Feel free to order the film from Amazon by clicking directly on the following links and in so doing, contribute to the ongoing maintenance of The Film Corner.