3 Nights in the Desert: Palm Springs Review

This limp drama about a band's reunion never sings or soars.

Wes Bentley, Amber Tamblyn and Vincent Piazza star as three one-time friends and lovers who were in a band a decade earlier.

The Palm Springs Film Festival has developed a reputation for showcasing the best in world cinema, but it hasn’t premiered many top American movies, perhaps because of the festival’s proximity to Sundance. But some movies make a natural fit here. In introducing the world premiere screening of a new American movie, one of the festival’s programmers asked, “What better place for a movie called 3 Nights in the Desert?” If only the movie were better, that question might prompt a more rousing answer. Commercial prospects seem dim.

The film features three gifted actors — Wes Bentley, Amber Tamblyn and Vincent Piazza — doing their best to animate a very stale script. The premise is one we’ve seen many times before. Three one-time friends and lovers who were in a band together 10 years earlier get together on the eve of their 30th birthdays to reminisce about old times and try to heal old wounds. It isn’t hard to tick off the antecedents, from The Big Chill to Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg to last year’s hit, The Best Man Holiday

Like some of those movies, 3 Nights is confined to a single setting, in this case a remote corner of the California desert. But since there are only three characters, this picture seems more like a theater piece than a movie. There was a time when writers schooled in the theater came to Hollywood and brought their gifts for dialogue, characterization, and plotting to the sometimes stagy scripts that they penned. Screenwriter Adam Chanzit and director Gabriel Cowan don’t have the same flair for eloquent dialogue or vivid character creation. Instead they offer a lot of turgid exchanges filled with regret and recrimination. There are unresolved sexual and romantic conflicts among the three former bandmates, along with philosophical differences. Barry (Piazza) has become a corporate lawyer, while Travis (Bentley) is a purist who blames his former partners for selling out. This tired conflict between pragmatism and idealism hasn’t been refreshed with any sharp, distinctive insights.

All three actors know how to hold the screen. Tamblyn even gets to demonstrate her singing ability and probably comes off best. Cowan and cinematographer Jonathan Bruno do capture some eerie, lovely desert landscapes. But the characters’ forays into a nearby cave with mystical powers don’t carry the metaphoric weight that the filmmakers seem to want to impose. The elderly Palm Springs audience was definitely not the right crowd for this picture, but it’s hard to know exactly where the movie would fit more comfortably.  One can hope that the actors and the director have better nights in their future.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival

Cast:  Amber Tamblyn, Wes Bentley, Vincent Piazza

Director:  Gabriel Cowan

Screenwriter: Adam Chanzit

Producers:  Gabriel Cowan, John Suits, Adam Chanzit, David E. Groom

Executive producers:  Jack Heller, Kerry Johnson, Eric Sherman, Dallas Sonnier

Director of photography: Jonathan Bruno

Production designer: Kathrin Eder

Music:  Tim Ziesmer

Costume designer: E.B. Brooks

Editor:  Seth Clark

No rating, 85 minutes