$5 a Day

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Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- The very high concept of "$5 a Day" -- good-for-nothing hustler Dad writes to estranged son to tell him he's dying of brain cancer -- immediately gives rise to fears of utter predictability and thus utter boredom.

Happily, the brilliant, offbeat and always fresh script by Neal and Tippi Dobrofsky dispels those negative feelings immediately, and, aided by the sharp direction of Nigel Cole and a superb turn by Christopher Walken at his most devilishly charming, what results is an outstanding example of what a genre film can and should look like.

The film recently was purchased by Image Entertainment, which should have a modest winner on its hands if it plays the commercial release right. It also should do well in ancillary.

Alessandro Nivola, an increasingly accomplished actor who has come a long way from the film adaptation of Jane Austen's "Persuasion," his first big role, plays Flynn, a young man working as a restaurant inspector.

One very bad day, his girlfriend (Amanda Peet) leaves him because he's so secretive about his past. He's also fired from his job for not disclosing on his job application that he had served an 11-month prison sentence some years back.

At the same time, he receives a letter from his ne'er-do-well father, Nat (Walken), informing Flynn that he's dying of brain cancer and needs to see him right away. Flynn has his doubts about the veracity of his father's claim but ultimately gives in.

What results is a witty, often hilarious and constantly self-reinventing road movie that has Flynn driving Nat cross-country in a car -- decorated from front to back as a moving commercial for Sweet & Low -- that Nat has won the use of, along with free gas, for a year.

The circuitous path that Nat has charted for the trip includes stops at all his old haunts. Flynn's own life, and the secrets of his mother's disappearance, are ambiguously and touchingly unveiled in the process. One stop includes a visit to the gorgeous, well-preserved Dolores (Sharon Stone), a sexual fantasy for both men since she was Flynn's baby-sitter, that is the highlight of the film. If the ultimate end is predictable -- as it of course must be to remain a genre film -- virtually every step of the way is entertainingly original, if understated, and often quite thought-provoking.

Given such rich and witty dialogue, Walken makes the most of it to give one of the best, most endearing performances of his life. He's always good in individual scenes, but his sprightly interpretation of this scheming crook with a heart of gold is sustained throughout the film and constantly takes the viewer by surprise. Nivola also is thoroughly convincing as the frustrated, put-upon son who still loves his dad in spite of everything.

Best of all, the Dobrofskys' sharp-eyed writing, all the while keeping us slightly off-balance and thoroughly entertained, allows us a fresh view of modern-day American culture as seen improbably through the garishly decorated windows of a Sweet & Low car.

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