Fifty-Nothing -- Film Review

This poor-man’s “Sideways” boasts some neat comic touches.

PALM SPRINGS — It seems only fitting that Fifty-Nothing, a tasty comedy about men fighting their age, had its world premiere at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

The movie centers on two men in the throes of midlife crises who decide to escape their professional and personal woes by heading off for a weekend of golf and recreational sex in Palm Springs. Filmed entirely in the desert community, the movie is a rare entry tailor-made for this festival. This modest character study is unlikely to set the box office on fire, but if marketed shrewdly, it could attract an appreciative older audience.

Adam (Martin Grey) and Jon (Drew Pillsbury) have recently turned 50 and have tired of their work making TV commercials. Adam is separated from his wife, and Jon is the perennial swinging bachelor. The two head off to Palm Springs to perfect their golf game while they drink, pick up women and take stock of their dwindling prospects. The movie invites comparisons to Alexander Payne’s Sideways, with Adam reminiscent of the introspective Paul Giamatti and Jon recalling the juvenile Thomas Haden Church from the 2004 film.

This picture is not as sharp, but Pillsbury and Grey, who co-authored the script (Grey writes and produces as Martin A. Gottlieb) with director Thomas Johnston, provide lots of snappy dialogue that includes some laugh-out-loud zingers.

The two actors are enormously appealing and do justice to the deeper elements in the script: Jon turns out to have some health issues to confront, while Adam is concerned about an aging father who may be slipping into dementia. During the weekend, the men meet a young woman, Alix (Michaela McManus), whom Jon hopes to bed, while Adam develops a rapport with her divorced mother (TV veteran Wendie Malick).

These two female characters add considerable spark to the movie. McManus is much too savvy to fall for Jon’s pickup routines, but she does feel a bond with him that is more platonic than romantic. Malick exudes wisdom as well as charm, though it’s disappointing that she only has a couple of juicy scenes.

Johnston’s direction is serviceable, but the movie has no visual flair. And some of the situations verge on sitcom obviousness. Still, every time you’re about to give up on the movie, it surprises you with a wicked one-liner or an acerbic, unsentimental insight into middle-aged angst. To its credit, the film also refuses to wrap up the story with ribbons and bows. The open ending is indicative of the unpredictable writing that keeps the movie on track.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival
Cast: Martin Grey, Drew Pillsbury, Wendie Malick, Michaela McManus, Anne-Marie Johnson, Steve Hytner
Director-editor: Thomas Johnston
Screenwriters: Drew Pillsbury, Martin A. Gottlieb, Thomas Johnston
Producers: Ian Toporoff, Maria T. Bierniak, Martin A. Gottlieb, Drew Pillsbury, Thomas Johnston
Executive producers: Amy Herman, Melanie Backer, Jim Hayden
Director of photography: Keith J. Duggan
Production designer: Carlos Moore
Costume designer: Jenny Eagan
No rating, 82 minutes