Friday, November 11, 2011

Triangles on the High Road

I missed the opening of Rampart, but I saw enough of it to be disappointed. My high expectations came from knowing that the movie was the second film directed by Oren Moverman, whose debut film The Messenger made a strong impression at the 2009 Lone Star Film Festival. Rampart stars Woody Harrelson as a crooked L.A. cop during the 1990s who's struggling to avoid various corruption probes over his many, many misdeeds. The movie has a starry supporting cast: Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche as his ex-wives (who are also sisters), Sigourney Weaver as a police psychiatrist, Steve Buscemi as a politician, Robin Wright as the cop's lawyer girlfriend, and Ice Cube as an investigator from the D.A.'s office who's hounding the cop. It even has James Ellroy, whose novel L.A. Confidential became a modern classic film, as a co-writer. Despite all that, this whole portrait of a bad man's moral squalor has a rather negligible impact. The only actor who impressed me was Brie Larson as the cop's screwed-up gay teenage daughter. I completely failed to recognize the same actress who portrayed Michael Cera's hipper-than-thou rock-star ex-girlfriend from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, so when I saw her name in the end credits, I was pretty blown away. Still, it wasn't enough to make this into a good movie.

Better stuff was in High Road, a comedy by Matt Walsh, a character actor who's also the founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade. James Pumphrey stars as an L.A. pot dealer named Fitz who wants to be a rock star and is working on a rock opera about his theory that triangles can explain the entire world. Unfortunately, his bandmates leave him on the same day, one for a promotion at his day job, the other for a different band that has actually gotten paying gigs. (It's a White Stripes cover band called 8th Nation Army.) One day, Fitz mistakenly gets the idea that the cops are onto him, so he hastily packs up and drives to Oakland to lie low, accompanied by his neighbor's unmotivated teenage son Jimmy (newcomer Dylan O'Brien). They're chased not by the police but by an overzealous ex-cop named Fogerty (Joe Lo Truglio) and Jimmy's dad (Rob Riggle), who think Fitz is a pedophile who has kidnapped Jimmy. They're also chased by Fitz' girlfriend Monica (Abby Elliott from Saturday Night Live) after she learns that she's pregnant.

Most of the dialogue was improvised, and most of the onscreen talent has connections to UCB, so they're pretty much all on the same page. What talent, too: Lizzy Caplan as a dimwitted member of 8th Nation Army, Ed Helms as Monica's pervy boss, Horatio Sanz as a suspicious (in more ways than one) doctor, and Kyle Gass as a weed buyer named Uncle Creepy. ("I'm Creepy," he introduces himself.) Not everything works: The scene with the hooker (Morgan Walsh) who keeps calling her potential customers "faggots" is repetitive, tone-deaf, and unfunny. Still, that's more than balanced out by the scenes that do work, like the one when Monica's boss sexually harasses her and then tries to get out of it by playing innocent, or Fitz' encounter with his estranged drag-queen dad (Rich Fulcher), or Monica's conversation with Fitz' ex-bandmate (Zach Woods), who won't stop talking on his Bluetooth headset with a guy named "Cole," so she's never certain whether he's talking to her or Cole. The chemistry among the cast is pretty good, especially the partnership between Lo Truglio and Riggle. Dylan O'Brien is a newcomer, but he keeps pace with these others very well. I wonder what kind of distribution this movie's going to get given that its lead actors are pretty much unknown, but it's funnier than many Hollywood comedies, so it deserves to be seen in some format. My fellow Weeklian Zack Shlachter was at this screening as well. Zack, what did you think? -- Kristian Lin

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