'Middle Man': SIFF Review

Courtesy of Seattle International Film Festival
An unconvincing black comedy whose aspirations rival its deluded hero's.

Jim O'Heir of 'Parks and Recreation' plays a milquetoast-turned-killer with dreams of standup stardom.

Character actor Jim O'Heir, whose Parks and Rec character got so little respect his colleagues couldn't remember his name, has a chance at the spotlight in Middle Man, the story of a deluded would-be comedian whose dreams turn bloody. Directed by first-timer Ned Crowley, who has known the actor for 30 years, the picture aims for the kind of folksy-quirky-outrageously violent recipe that paid off in Fargo while exploring its hero's psychological collapse. Though some fest audiences will buy it — the pic earned SIFF's grand jury prize for New American Cinema — this is a very far cry from the many films (from the Coen brothers to King of Comedy and a hundred violent road movies) it calls to memory, and is too flimsy a vehicle to carry the likeable O'Heir to future leading roles.

O'Heir plays Lenny, a mama's boy who, upon his mother's death, quits his straitlaced job to pursue a comedy career in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, his idea of comedy (and of fashion, for that matter) is stuck in the distant past: Cruising down the highway in Mom's 1953 Oldsmobile, he listens to cassettes of old Burns & Allen and Abbott & Costello routines, mouthing every word from memory. Everywhere he stops, strangers are funnier than he is, and their zingers shoot over his head.

Foolishly ignoring Mama's advice, Lenny picks up a hitchhiker named, er, Hitch (Andrew J. West), who soon claims to be a talent manager who can book Lenny on a Vegas variety show. But first, the newbie should try out his material at an open mike in little Lamb Bone, Nevada.

Unsurprisingly, Lenny bombs. Less predictably, the night's main heckler winds up dead the next morning in Lenny's trunk. Believing he killed him while blackout drunk, Lenny spends the day trying to get rid of the body; then, in an unlikely chain of events, finds himself at the open mike again: Disheveled, distraught and covered in blood, he stammers, "I'm sorry I'm such a mess ... I just killed a guy ... he was heckling me." Mistaking this for conceptual comedy, the audience goes wild.

There's potential in this notion of Lenny accidentally tripping into success — not realizing others view his despair as an Andy Kaufman-style shtick, then being caught up in further killings that perpetuate his illusory career. And if Crowley has seen Roger Corman's Bucket of Blood, in which a wannabe Beatnik transforms a murder spree into a successful art career, he modifies the concept enough to avoid charges of plagiarism. (After all, Corman was riffing on an earlier movie as well.) But the execution is weak, and Crowley does himself no favors by repeatedly invoking the memory of more psychologically persuasive films like Five Easy Pieces and Deliverance.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival (New American Cinema Competition)
Production company: Lamb Bone Films
Cast: Jim O'Heir, Andrew J. West, Josh McDermitt, Anne Dudek, Tracey Walter
Director-screenwriter: Ned Crowley
Producers: William Fortney, Roger Petrusson, Gerald Webb
Director of photography: Dick Buckley
Production designer: Barry Gelber
Costume designer: Neysa Stone
Editor: Chris Claeys
Composer: Robert Guillory
Casting director: Jon Beauregard

Not rated, 104 minutes

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