'Wheeler': Film Review

Courtesy of Momentum Pictures
An experiment that hints Dorff might have some luck following his dad and brother into songwriting.
2/3/2017

Stephen Dorff plays an aspiring songwriter heading to Nashville in this faux-doc collaboration with director Ryan Ross.

Shot under Borat-like conditions in which Stephen Dorff (wearing enough prosthetics to keep from being recognized) sold himself to Nashville residents as an unknown singer-songwriter, Ryan Ross' Wheeler is best viewed as a water-testing exercise: Should Dorff, who has seen considerable bumps in the road as an actor, embark on a second career as a country songwriter? Maybe so, judging from this peculiar film, whose dramatic elements are less plausible than the radio-ready tunes they put forward. The CMT crowd may take to it on video, especially if Dorff manages to spin this fiction into real-world success.

Dorff's father Steve and his brother Andrew (who died in December) have separately penned hits for artists ranging from Kenny Rogers to Kenny Chesney. So it's hardly surprising that Stephen, during a lull in acting work, sat down and put his childhood musical training to use. Deciding with Ross to work his new batch of songs into a film project, he teamed up with family friend and Nashville vet Bobby Tomberlin to solidify the tunes' country flavor and to find a context for them: Tomberlin helped secure locations like the Bluebird Cafe, where Dorff played in disguise, and convince industry figures like Curb Records' Jim Ed Norman to play themselves in scenes with him.

So far, so good. But in piecing these elements into a narrative, Dorff and co-screenwriter Ross forgot that satisfying stories tend to place some disappointment and conflict between their heroes and success. In Wheeler, setbacks are all backstory: The weathered but hopeful Wheeler Bryson, a cowpoke from Texas, sets out in a pickup for Music City. There he plays a single awkward open-mike before realizing how to perform for a crowd, at which point every door in the industry is opened to him.

Viewers who don't mind the lack of dramatic tension may appreciate Dorff's credible take on his modest, gentlemanly character, who offers aw-shucks gratitude to all the bigwigs telling him how great his songs are. And while those songs are hardly the revolutionary, back-to-real-country compositions the script sometimes suggests they are, they could plausibly be hits in the right hands. Dorff delivers them with feeling.

Uncertain where its up-and-up trajectory should carry it, the film makes a couple of odd choices in its final scenes that present serious challenges to viewers who've invested in the tale. But those missteps have little to do with the songs, which are already out on a soundtrack and seem likely to fare better than the movie.

Production company: La Costa Productions
Distributor: Momentum Pictures
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Audrey Spillman, Bobby Tomberlin, Kris Kristofferson
Director: Ryan Ross
Screenwriters-producers: Stephen Dorff, Ryan Ross
Executive producers: Bobby Tomberlin, Mickey Raphael, Derek Vanderhorst
Director of photography: Jared Moossy
Editor: Michael Beaumont
Composer: Stephen Dorff

Rated PG, 100 minutes

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