Small Time: Film Review

It's hard to resist this affecting movie's modest charms.

Christopher Meloni plays a divorced used car salesman who reconnects with his teenage son in this comedy-drama written and directed by Joel Surnow ("24").

Playing the hard-boiled Detective Elliot Stabler for 12 seasons on Law and Order: SVU must have whetted Christopher Meloni’s appetite for lighter fare. Currently starring in the Fox sitcom Surviving Jack, the actor also displays his comic chops as a used car salesman in Small Time. Marking the feature debut of Joel Surnow, whose extensive television credits include 24 and The Kennedys, the film is an affecting comedy-drama that could garner strong VOD business thanks to its cast featuring such familiar faces as Dean Norris (Breaking Bad, Under the Dome) and Bridget Moynahan.

The rugged actor plays Al Klein, who, along with his longtime partner Ash Martini (Norris), owns a used car dealership in the Valley. Although he has a beautiful girlfriend (Garcelle Beauvais), Al is desperately pining for his ex-wife Barbara (Moynahan), now remarried to a wealthy venture capitalist (Xander Berkeley) whose disdain for Al’s small-time, wheeler-dealing is all too apparent.

The sort of hapless father who shows up three hours late for his son Freddy’s (Devon Bostick of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series) high school graduation, Al is pleasantly surprised when the young man informs him that he intends to forego college and instead wants to become a used car salesman himself. Despite his mother’s strong objections, Freddy goes to work at the lot, quickly proving himself no slouch when it comes to manipulating customers. He also moves in with his old man, marking the first time the two have lived together in many years.

The writer-director’s affection for his characters -- the script is loosely autobiographical -- is both palpable and infectious. Meloni’s vulnerable Al is nicely paired with Norris’ endlessly exuberant Ash, who in late middle-age, is still prowling single bars in search of a good time. Watching the two men use a variety of well-honed tricks to snare unsuspecting buyers is one of the film’s many pleasures. Also fun are the scenes in which they hang out at a deli and kibitz with a group of colorful pals played by Kevin Nealon, Gregory Itzin and Ken Davitian (Borat).

While the storyline involving Al’s domestic drama and his increasing discomfort with his son’s disdainful attitude towards the dealership’s customers rarely strikes an unpredictable note, it works anyway thanks to the engaging characterizations and dialogue that largely rings true. Small Time never quite manages to exceed its modest aspirations, but it has a loose charm that pulls you in much in the same way that Al and Ash’s reluctant buyers find themselves plunking down cash for a car they didn’t really want.

Opens April 18 (Anchor Bay Films)

Production: Asylum Entertainment

Cast: Christopher Meloni, Dean Norris, Devon Bostick, Bridget Moynahan, Kevin Nealon, Garcelle Beauvais, Xander Berkeley, Amaury Nolasco

Director/screenwriter: Joel Surnow

Producer: K.C. Warnke

Executive producers: Stan E. Hubbard, Jonathan Koch, Steven Michaels, Jamie Paul Rock, Larry Rogow, Colleen Surnow

Director of photography: Feliks Parnell

Editor: David B. Thompson

Costume designer: Kristen Anacker

Rated R, 95 minutes