American Gun (out on DVD this week) is one of those ensemble issue-dramas, featuring a cast of B-list character actors, interwoven story lines, and a big fucking message that bleats and pumps and strangles with all the subtlety of a Liz Phair song. And if that description sounds an awful lot like last year’s Academy Award-winning hoax Crash, well, there’s good reason — trade the racial issues for some less-defined gun concerns, and the two films aren’t all that dissimilar. But, though it pains me to say so, Crash was in every way superior to American Gun, which — if you can imagine it — manages to be less understated than Crash yet infinitely more vague. With Crash at least you knew where you stood (and if you didn’t, you might want to repeat kindergarten), but the message in American Gun isn’t particularly clear. It seems to say that guns are really, really bad but, well, you just never know when you might need one.
The storylines, which don’t interweave inasmuch as they sort of straddle and dart into nothingness, are as follows: Janet Huttenson (Marcia Gay Harden) is a single mother working in a factory. One of her sons spearheaded a Columbine-type school shooting three years before, which shook up the entire town pretty badly — as you can imagine. Janet, however, still has another son (Chris Marquette) she has to take care of, and living in the same neighborhood where the parents of her son’s victims reside hasn’t exactly been easy on her, what with the blame and the guilt and those pesky grievers. Her son is having his own issues, of course, but a classmate (Nikki Reed) and her hanger-on (Amanda Seyfried) are strangely fascinated with him because of his sibling connection. Meanwhile, a cop (Tony Goldwyn), who was first to the scene of the school shooting, lost his own son during the melee, and is facing questions about his own failures in dealing with the massacre, is suffering with his own psychological issues, which are exacerbated when Janet decides to give an interview about the shooting to raise some money to pay her rent and keep her son in private school.
Elsewhere, Carter (Forrest Whittaker) is the principal of an inner-city Chicago high school where guns are an everyday part of life. His big deal is that he spends more time tending to his students than his own son, who has just witnessed a half-naked hooker with her stomach sticking out and a knife still planted in her. Thankfully, as far as Whittaker’s plotline is concerned, a backpack is apparently all he needed to solve his problems. One of his high-schoolers (Arlen Escarpeta), however, doesn’t get off so easy: He is an exceptional student but must carry a gun to school because he has to walk through a bad neighborhood each day and work overnight in a convenience story. Oh, and if you’re wondering, Tracy Gold is not in American Gun.
Finally, Mary Ann Wilk (Linda Cardellini) is a college student — transplanted from the east coast to South Carolina — who hesitantly and uncomfortably helps tend to her grandfather’s (Donald Sutherland) gun shop. She’s wary of guns, yet takes it upon herself to learn to shoot after a friend (Schuyler Fisk) is drugged and nearly date-raped at a college fraternity party. Now she’s all muddled and confused, and her grandfather just doesn’t know what the hell happened to all those nice family dinners they used to have. Goddamn guns: Always fucking up family hours.
Unlike Crash, however, most of American Gun’s storylines arrive at unsatisfying open-ended resolutions, which is all fine and dandy for a film with higher pretensions, but kind of misplaced for a well-cast after-school special. Still, Forest Whittaker — who doesn’t know how to be otherwise — is incredible, and Marcia Gay Harden gives the expected Harden experience, though she is asked around four times too many to give into hysterics. Unfortunately, both of their performances (and Chris Marquette’s) are wasted in Aric Avelino’s directorial debut, which mostly just leaves you wondering what the fuck the whole point was.
Film Geek (released to DVD last week) is one of those films that’s been sitting in my Netflix queue for about six months, awaiting a release date. The premise itself — about a video-store clerk with an autistic knowledge of film — is enough to set any film critic (especially the online variety) into a narcissistic frenzy. Unfortunately, for anyone expecting a movie that either glorifies or sexualizes the movie dork, the search will have to continue, because the film geek here has all the appeal of “Freaks and Geeks”’ Bill Havurchuck, with about a tenth of his charm. In fact, Scotty Pelk (Melik Malkasian) is about what you’d envision an emaciated Harry Knowles who only wears retail outfits to be like, only Pelk’s film knowledge is (if you can imagine it) a tad more obscure, less useful, and far less sensationalistic.
Pelk works at Video Connections, a Blockbuster-like video store. He revels in shrink-wrapping videos; inexplicably smells the video boxes, as though they were a fine glasses of wine; insufferably organizes everything; and spends his evenings masturbating to the neighbor lady over his bathroom sink. Eventually, however, he is fired from his job for annoying customers who don’t give a damn about obscure movies or his “useless trivia about stupid crap.” From there he winds up at an auto parts store spouting off his movie gibberish to anyone who could possibly not give a shit. However, through some ridiculous sitcom contrivance and some Chuck & Buck-like stalking, he winds up at a party, where his expertise at “Seven Degree of Kevin Bacon” makes him some sort of freak-show party trick and also ultimately leads to his breakthrough.
He’s also infatuated with a girl named Niko (Tyler Gannon), who by rights has no reason to talk to him but, because even intolerable fuckwits have to get some play in low-budget indies, she gives him a chance. Eventually, however, Niko pulls a Last American Virgin and goes back to her jackass boyfriend, leaving little Scotty Pelk an unhinged ball of useless movie knowledge teetering on the edge of stability.
Writer/director James Westby fashions a pretty decent script here; unfortunately his efforts are completely lost in his casting of Malkasian, whose interpretation of Pelk is akin to Pee Wee Herman with Asperger’s syndrome. Though it’s far from certain, I think that had Westby cast a charmingly obnoxious goofball, like a Steve Zahn or Todd Louiso type, Film Geek might’ve worked to some degree. Unfortunately, this geek is just sad and pathetic, a guy you’d rather toss down a stairwell than see succeed. And when he finally does, it feels awfully self-serving, like Westby’s trying to validate his own pitiful existence. There’s certainly nothing wrong with an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, but a little social adaptability goes a long way.
I’ll grant it this, though: Film Geek may be one of the last modern-era movies we see set — at least in part — in a video store. It’s a dying location, folks. And with the advent of Netflix and the ability to download films, our next generation may look back on the video store like we view the Old West saloon: a vestige of the past that only appears in Jackie Chan buddy films.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives in a blue house with his wife in a hippie colony/college town in upstate New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Film | August 23, 2006 | Comments ()