'Roadie' Hits the Skids
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Character pieces are tricky. Even more, perhaps, than a genre picture such as a thriller, a character piece has to hook the viewer almost immediately, make the viewer think that this person or these people on the screen are going to be interesting. Do you want to spend some time with them? Because in a character piece, that's what the viewer's doing, largely: spending time with the people in it. These people may go through crises and journeys of self-discovery or whatnot, but it's not likely they're gonna wind up doing something as viscerally exciting as hanging on to a pane of glass on the outside of the world's tallest building or anything.
Unfortunately, Jimmy Testagross, the titular protagonist of "Roadie," a film co-written and directed by Michael Cuesta, who made a striking feature debut in 2001 with a somewhat more unnerving character study, "L.I.E.," did not hook me right off the bat; rather, he had me thinking, "Oh, this guy again." The movie opens, more or less, with Jimmy (played by Ron Eldard, doing a convincing simulation of having gone to seed) pacing in front of an airport fence, yelling into a cellphone, protesting his abandonment at the hands of characters unseen. "We were big! We did things!" he yells, hitting the not-unexpected note of whine. "Come on. I was the best roadie you ever had, dude." Movies tapping the poignancy of itinerant existences are commonplace to say the least, and the main point of departure from the commonplace here is that we're dealing with a down-on-his-luck roadie rather than musician, which makes the "down" part even more, you know, down. When Jimmy scrutinizes his middle-aged, now-unemployed gut in a hotel mirror, it's pretty clear that a dark night of the soul and mayhap a potential reawakening are in the offing.
And so Jimmy returns to the outer boroughs of New York, an area Cuesta conveyed with knowing accuracy in "L.I.E." He does the same here, and in particular he does right by the aging characters' nostalgic taste in music -- Good Rats, nice call. (There's also some funny dialogue concerning Blue Oyster Cult, ostensibly Jimmy's former employers.) On the other hand, can you guess what this Jimmy Testagross' dirty nickname was in high school, back when slick mook Randy (Bobby Cannavale) -- who you know is still a kind of bad guy because he disparages one of his employees as a "friggin' towelhead" -- used to give him a hard time? Bet you can. Also not surprising is that Nikki (Jill Hennessey), the sweet hottie that Jimmy couldn't quite make it with back in the day, is now married to that creep Randy. "Do I still have dreams and stuff?" aspiring singer-songwriter Nikki rhetorically asks in front of Jimmy during an almost instantly soul-searching conversation.
"Roadie" confines its action to more or less a 48-hour period, which is in one respect admirably neat. But by the same token, jamming so many epiphanies into that compressed a time space (Jimmy also intuits that his elderly mother is suffering from some form of dementia, and that he's likely gonna have to put aside his illusions/delusions of rejoining his road crew) is kind of forced, and the movie shows the strain of that. And even so it can't avoid certain dead spots. While the excellent cast does its level, honest best with the material, the material itself feels secondhand throughout. And to make matters worse, the film's end credits feature Adam Duritz covering a Jackson Browne song. That just ain't right.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.