'Chasing the Blues': Film Review

Harvey Pekar would wipe the floor with these guys.

Two obsessive record collectors fight over a rare 78 in Scott Smith's comedy.

Never trust Jon Lovitz to sell you a priceless collectible.

The onetime Saturday Night Live laff-getter gives a brief, Razzie-worthy performance in Scott Smith's Chasing the Blues, as a Loosiana lawyuh who has found a one-of-a-kind blues record and offers to sell it to the man whose life it ruined. A light comedy whose take on the psyche of obsessive collectors is far less credible than that of, say, Ghost World or Sideways, the picture stretches its material pretty thin, but is amiable enough when it's not veering left into Coen-wannabe black comedy.

Grant Rosenmeyer plays Alan, who's just ending a 20-year jail stretch for an offense we'll hear about in due time. (Suffice to say, he didn't do it.) In his pre-jailbird life, he was a high school teacher with a top-shelf record collection — and the kind of crate-digging nut who watched obituaries in hopes of finding a bereaved family willing to unload grandpa's old shellac for pennies. Lovitz's Lincoln Groome visits Alan during the final days of his sentence, promising he has the holy grail in a just-opened storage unit. So the first thing Alan does when he's freed is board a bus from Illinois to Louisiana.

On that bus, he's befriended by a suspiciously friendly young woman named Vanessa (Chelsea Tavares), whose short cutoff jeans and handy guitar couldn't possibly be tricks meant to learn something from a long-celibate music nerd. The two strike up an interstate conversation, and he tells her about the record that got him thrown in jail.

Back in 1987, Alan found an elderly widow (Anna Maria Horsford's likably dotty Mrs. Walker) who unknowingly owned a 78 rpm disc most collectors thought was a fairy tale: a recording by a fictional blues guitarist so haunted by guilt that the ghost of the woman he killed sang backup behind him. Those who listened to the song's test pressings were driven mad, even died, so it was never issued commercially. Ever since the 1930s, credulous blues nuts have sought the world's only existing copy.

But Alan had a rival: Paul (Ronald L. Conner), a black record store owner who tried to get under his skin by painting him as a white carpetbagger stealing his community's cultural riches. (There's certainly a movie's worth of material in that idea, but here it's just a thin comic device.) Paul makes his way to Mrs. Walker's living room just as Alan tries to buy her old records, and each man works to keep the other from leaving the house with "Death, Where Is Thy Sting."

We're spending most of our time in flashback as Alan tells this story to Vanessa, and here's how you know the woman is trying to scam him: She doesn't blink an eye at the preposterous notion that these two men wound up spending several days and nights in Mrs. Walker's living room, with their host alternating between naps and sweet-tea-making while they feuded.

Viewers who share her willingness may well get a kick out of the actors' verbal sniping and the mystery of how this episode led to where Alan is today. And even those who find the script's contrivances absurd may deem it diverting enough, for a third-hand story of obsessive competition. The film's made-for-TV look and feel help it go down easy, but when Smith and co-writer Kevin Guilfoile unveil their ugly plans for Mrs. Walker, its attempts at black comedy spoil the vibe.

Production company: Fulton Market Films
Distributor: Ammo Content
Cast: Grant Rosenmeyer, Ronald L. Conner, Chelsea Tavares, Anna Maria Horsford, Clem Cheung, Jon Lovitz, Steve Guttenberg
Director: Scott Smith
Screenwriters: Scott Smith, Kevin Guilfoile
Producers: DeAnna Cooper, Jacqueline E. Ingram
Executive producers: John Fromstein, Markie Glassgow, Ted Reilly, Kelly Waller
Director of photography: Nicole Hirsch Whitaker
Production designer: Jenn McLaren
Costume designer: Courtney Stern
Editor: Aaron Kiser
Composers: Jeremy Bullock, Keegan DeWitt
Casting directors: Mickie Paskal, Jennifer Rudnicke

77 minutes