'Phoenix, Oregon': Film Review

Phoenix, Oregon - Publicity still - H 2020
Courtesy Joma Films
A warm and hopeful coming-of-middle-age tale.

James Le Gros plays a cartoonist trying to start a business in Gary Lundgren's tale of rebirth.

A quarter-century after starring in a film called Floundering, James Le Gros still makes an ideal embodiment of his generation's ambivalence about joining the world of squares. In Gary Lundgren's gently warm Phoenix, Oregon, the actor plays an unpublished comic book artist who, after years of tending bar for others, is talked into starting a business of his own. Well cast with actors who help the film overcome an obviously meager budget, Phoenix is as rough at the edges as its protagonist, and will inspire a similar kind of sympathetic response — especially among viewers who've been through a few reversals and know not every rebound has to take the form of a glorious firebird to be worthwhile.

Bobby has been working for years on a graphic-novel memoir whose narrative is overshadowed by two women, his dead mother and the wife who left him. He's more dazed than self-pitying about the latter loss: Le Gros wears a wide-eyed gaze that seems to wonder if the world might have something more it wants to take from him.

Tending bar in a crappy, failing Italian restaurant run by a chiseler named Kyle (Diedrich Bader), Bobby suffers alongside the dive's chef Carlos (Jesse Borrego), his friend since childhood: Both men care about quality products, but are expected to make do with the cheap stuff. (And to fork over 50 percent of their pooled tips to the boss.)

Carlos surprises Bobby one day with a plan: He's been saving money for years, and wants to open a high-end pizzeria. Having found a derelict bowling alley with a kitchen, he wants Bobby (a bowling champion in high school) to use the money his mother left him to be his partner, stocking the venue's bar with his favorite local microbrews. They'll be partly bankrolled by Mario (Reynaldo Gallegos), a cheesy venture capitalist working mostly with the region's pot farmers; while Mario tends to more lucrative investments, a local wine merchant (Lisa Edelstein's Tanya) will help make things run smoothly. Bobby is reluctant, but the taste of Carlos' Neapolitan pies and the prospect of working with crush-worthy Tanya seals the deal.

Lundgren offers plenty of hints that going into business with Mario will lead to some sort of trouble. But for most of the film, the conflict comes from the artisan grease monkey Bobby hires to rehabilitate the alley's wooden lanes and machinery. The director clearly encouraged Kevin Corrigan to entertain himself in his enjoyably hammy performance as the grouchy, it's-gonna-cost-you Al, who in addition to being the only repairman around is a competitive bowler intent on humiliating Bobby once the lanes open.

As the film balances middle-aged competitiveness with the idealistic, Chef-like action in the kitchen, viewers may come to feel it could do without an ingredient or two. Bobby's off-and-on work on his memoir keeps the film from fully investing in his entrepreneurial ambitions, and — especially once he and Tanya start spending more time together — it isn't really needed as a means of exploring the emotional wounds he's still nursing.

Trimming that thread would also have allowed Lundgren to make some characters' motivations more coherent. Despite being longish for this sort of film, the plotting has to rush at moments to develop the necessary drama. A more spare approach would be more convincing — and be better suited to a protagonist who, after treading water for so long, really doesn't need much to go right in order to find contentment.


Production company: Joma Films
Distributor: Aspiration Entertainment
Cast: James Le Gros, Jesse Borrego, Lisa Edelstein, Diedrich Bader, Kevin Corrigan, Reynaldo Gallegos, Jai Bugarin
Director/screenwriter/editor: Gary Lundgren
Producers: Anne Lundgren, Luis Rodriguez
Executive producer: Ryan Niemi
Director of photography: Patrick Neary
Production designer: Dave Marshall
Costume designer: Claudia Everett
Composer: John Askew

Rated-R, 108 minutes