There's a lot about "Off the Black" to remind you that it's a directorial debut - the bearded indie-type clerking a small-town convenience store who just screams "director's buddy," for example - but that's not the real problem. Writer/director James Ponsoldt's screenplay never stops reminding us that it was written; not in the sense that everyone's spouting impossibly sparkling epigrams, but because the plot elements give up an obtrusive racket as they lock together into their custom-molded fit. The capper line, kind of explaining the ambiguous title, aims for "Oh, this thing called life is so sad and short and lovely" transcendence, but comes off as a showy curtain call, like the bush-league move that marred the end of "The Squid and the Whale." It's the sort of meticulously worked-over material that gets admiring compliments when passed through a screenwriting workshop, but is hobbled by its own conceptual cuteness on the screen.
Though played straight, the film's premise - an umpire gives a controversial call that costs his hometown high school team a playoff slot, catches the losing pitcher vandalizing his yard, then blackmails the kid to pose as his son at his upcoming 40-year school reunion - is close to Farrelly Brothers territory. Ponsoldt uses it to set up a surrogate dad friendship between the hermetic-to-the-point-of-alcoholic-eccentricity ump (Nick Nolte) and the pitcher (Trevor Morgan, whose mane and roman nose make him a cross between Spicoli-era Sean Penn and Creed's Scott Stapp), an anomalously earnest teen more interested in collecting arrowheads than downloading porn and Southern rap onto his hard drive.
Thankfully, Nolte can single-handedly justify any movie he appears in. He's developed one of film's great old man's faces (he's about five years away from having his every role end in a death scene), pursuing his Michel Simon understudy part well past "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," right down to the exploded coif. His monumental head's like a gutted, weather-beaten, abandoned house, but then the lights flash on upstairs in his eyes... Moviemakers who use him now like to incorporate pictures of Nolte as a hearty young stud - a framed photo here, a mug shot in "The Good Thief" - maybe because there is something in his slitted gaze to suggest that his vitality's stayed on, trapped, rioting against failing flesh. He's unchecked and buffoonish here, chasing suds from a Genesee bottle with his mouth, gargling on his lines, but effortlessly touching, too.
The press kit notes that Ponsoldt studied the photography of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore for his film, and a prominent Edward Hopper poster suggests another point of reference. But here these influences are only reflected in the film's penchant for periodically leaving characters stranded in long shot, adrift in a mishandled widescreen, while mournful lap steel indicates that we are seeing that particular, all-too-familiar kind of lugubrious American Lonesomeness. Some hackneyed transitional bits of "tossed-off" prettiness - jet streams, etc. - only serve as further evidence of the film's paucity of visual imagination; cinematographer Tim Orr, earlier overpraised for his work with David Gordon Green, coasts on easy minimalism. Ponsoldt's gentleness with his cast is promising, but there's still a long way to go.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.