Film Review: Manure

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PARK CITY -- As a stylistic exercise, "Manure" is something of a triumph. One might even call it surprisingly tasty, given the title and subject matter. But in terms of story and overall impact, this oddity definitely reeks. The Polish brothers have forged a small but loyal cult following for their earlier movies, including "Twin Falls, Idaho" and "Northfork." "Manure" will not expand their audience. Despite the presence of Billy Bob Thornton and Tea Leoni in the cast, boxoffice prospects are limited.

This new venture (directed by Michael Polish, written by Mark and Michael Polish) is meant as a wry tribute to old-fashioned American salesmen (there's even a reference to Willy Loman) who happen to peddle manure to farmers. Patrick Fitzpatrick (Thornton) is the leader of a loyal band of brothers. Their livelihood is threatened first when the company is inherited by the daughter (Leoni) of the original owner, and then when a new group of salesmen with a chemically enhanced fertilizer vows to make them obsolete.

The theme of rugged individualists battling new-fangled corporation men is a hoary one, and the film has a lot of echoes of other movies, including Barry Levinson's "Tin Men," and the hit TV series "Mad Men" (set in roughly the same era). There really isn't enough novelty in the way the Polish brothers rework this theme; the script is neither fresh nor funny.

But the cinematography by M. David Mullen (who also shot "Northfork") is consistently stunning. Mullen and the Polishes have tried a variation on sepia-tinged photography; virtually everything is brown (an homage, no doubt, to the commodity referenced in the title), and while the visual scheme sometimes grows monotonous, there are remarkable effects, like a beige-tinted sunset unlike anything you've ever seen. Some of the images, like a bunch of salesmen in bowler hats parachuting down from the heavens, evoke the paintings of Rene Magritte. The achievements of production designer Clark Hunter and costume designer Bic Owen match the cinematography.

Performances are highly variable. Thornton is restrained and dryly witty. Leoni seems to be struggling with an inconsistent, sometimes caricatured role. Supporting actors Pruitt Taylor Vince and Frances Conroy make a vivid impression but have too little to do.

For a while, the visuals keep us mesmerized, but the overlong film has too many false endings. Tighter editing would help, but it's obviously too late to revamp the precious, airless script.

Production: Initiate Productions, Prohibition Pictures
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Tea Leoni, Kyle MacLachlan, Mark Polish, Ed Helms, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Patrick Bauchau, Frances Conroy, Richard Edson
Director: Michael Polish
Screenwriters: Mark Polish, Michael Polish
Producers: Mark Polish, Michael Polish, Ken Johnson, Jonathan Sheldon, Janet Dubois.
Executive producer: Nick Byassee
Director of photography: M. David Mullen
Production designer: Clark Hunter
Music: Stuart Matthewman
Costume designer: Bic Owen
Editor: Cary Gries
No rating, 110 minutes