'Billboard': Film Review

False advertising.
6/21/2019

The desperate owner of a failing radio station devises an endurance contest to drum up publicity in Zeke Zelker's "cine-experience," featuring Eric Roberts and Heather Matarazzo.

One might be tempted to call the new film by Zeke Zelker a comedy-drama, but that would imply that it possesses moments of either. Rather, Billboard is best described as an endurance contest, which feels particularly appropriate since it concerns just such an event in which four people compete in a radio station-sponsored contest to see which one of them can live on a billboard the longest. By the time the relentlessly dull pic reaches its conclusion, viewers will be feeling envious of them.

Billboard is not just a movie, however. It's part of a "cine-experience" that includes not only the film being given a theatrical release but also a 25-episode (!) web series, The Billboard Sitters, and a digital radio station available nationwide. It's an undeniably bold attempt at media synergy that seems unlikely to pay off.

As for the movie itself, it revolves around Casey (John Robinson, Elephant, here lacking the necessary charisma to carry a film), who inherits an Allentown, Pennsylvania-based alternative rock AM radio station after his father dies. Having no managerial experience and facing the fading fortunes of both the station and the community where it's based, Casey comes up with the idea of creating the Big Brother-like contest, the winner of which will receive a mobile home and a cash prize of $96,000, which is pretty much all the money the station has left.

The stunt attracts the much-needed publicity, but also the ire of the station's biggest competition, Free Channel (no points for guessing the inspiration), led by a rapacious executive determined to squash Casey by any means necessary. (He's played by Eric Roberts, demonstrating yet again that there's simply no film small enough for him to turn down, including this one in which he's reduced to playing a lengthy scene opposite a woman sitting inside a bathroom stall.) Meanwhile, the townspeople, local media and politicians begin actively campaigning against the contest, with one television news reporter describing it as "an awful spectacle of the human condition." 

Although the storyline, based on a true incident that took place in the area in the 1980s, has an undeniably familiar feel, it would seem to hold the promise of some mild fun. That's sadly not the case, with the screenplay lacking any amusing situations or dialogue and the narrative so choppy it feels like whole chunks have been left out.

The film mainly concentrates on the bland Casey and his radio station employees, who, although played by such familiar figures as Heather Matarazzo (Welcome to the Dollhouse, The Princess Diaries) and Leo Fitzpatrick (Kids, Bully), aren't sufficiently well-drawn to make much of an impression. Bizarrely, little attention is paid to the more colorful contestants, although they're presumably the subject of the internet spinoff.

Writer-director Zelker never establishes a consistent tone, eventually aiming for a tragic conclusion that feels hopelessly unearned. The pic's technical aspects are inept, from the flat cinematography to the choppy editing to the wan design elements. Billboard does at least earn points, however, for its extensive location shooting in Lehigh Valley, an area that doesn't exactly suffer from cinematic overexposure.

Production company: iDreamMachine
Distributor: Paladin
Cast: John Robinson, Alice Wills, Heather Matarazzo, Eric Roberts, Leo Fitzpatrick, Elaine Zelker, Ashley Russo, Doug Kemmerer, Roy Shuler
Director-screenwriter-producer: Zeke Zelker
Executive producers: Elaine Zelker, Zeke Zelker
Director of photography: Matthew M. Blum
Production designer: James Charles
Costume designer: Rita Squitiere
Editor: Reed Baum

Music: Patrick Wilson
Casting directors: Toni Cusumano, Kathy Patterson

89 minutes