Of all the son-of-Sundance filmmakers to come of age in the mid-90s, the one you hear the least about these days is Alexandre Rockwell. For a period, at least, he seemed like he was really going to be a mainstay in American independent cinema. He made a splash with 1992’s witty “In the Soup,” was a contemporary of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Roger Avery, and Allison Anders (who, granted, has been directing episodes of “Cold Case” in recent years, although she does pop up on “Trailers From Hell” every once in a while), and delivered a segment, with some of those filmmakers, for the Miramax anthology film “Four Rooms.” It might be totally unwatchable now, but it was really supposed to be something back then.
In the years since “Four Rooms” he’s only completed three films, while teaching film classes at NYU and marrying one of the co-stars of the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (Karyn Parsons, who played Hilary Banks). Well, now Rockwell is back, and trying to capture the zingy, devil-may-care spirit that made him such a promising filmmaker in the first place. The problem, though, is that much of the lustre is gone, and the film, the awkwardly titled “Pete Smalls Is Dead,” is amateurish, convoluted, and unfunny.
The premise of “Pete Smalls Is Dead,” as best we can figure, involves K.C. (Peter Dinklage, free of Westeros), who owns a laundromat on the east coast and is severely indebted to some very nasty people. He owes them $10,000 so they steal his beloved dog, an event that just-so-coincidentally occurs at the same time his former best friend, a hack film director named Pete Smalls (Tim Roth, full tilt), accidentally drowns. His friend Jack (Mark Boone Junior) offers him the $10,000 if he’ll come out west and help him bury their friend. K.C. complies but, as anyone with even a passing knowledge of crime films or film noir can attest, these are false pretenses, and a whole web of intrigue awaits our diminutive hero.
When K.C. shows up in LA, Jack tells him that the kung fu epic that Smalls was completing at the time of his death-by-ocean was actually based on a script he had stolen from K.C. years earlier. Everyone is in a mad grab to either finish the film or sell it off entirely, including Hal Lazar (Ritchie Coster), an unscrupulous producer who is overseeing Smalls’ large estate; Bernie Lake (Steve Buscemi in a Halloween shop wig), a small-time, Roger Corman-esque producer; and Saskia (a debut performance Theresa Wayman, of the band all-girl rock band Warpaint). Also Seymour Cassel shows up as a gangster. Or something.
The plot gets hopelessly convoluted, without anything ever moving forward. Imagine a bunch of scenes where people ask other people for money, get beat up, and everyone speaks in profanity-laced pulpy paperback crime novel dialogue (sample narration: “You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince. So Jack and I went frog-kissing”). In the age of the cloud, it seems incredibly anachronistic to think that a movie’s fate rested in the hands of a single negative (ask David Fincher about the importance of the “digital workflow” and he’ll be talking for a half hour), much less building whole swaths of “Pete Smalls Is Dead” around this premise, including a halfhearted heist sequence that just comes across as lame.
Rockwell, as a director, seems to be losing his edge – what used to feel sharp and crisp comes across as nagging and cynical. The dialogue goes around in circles, striving for some kind of meta-textual film noir cheekiness, but winds up as amateurish and confusing (just because you have characters saying the names of two dozen characters doesn’t mean anyone’s going to remember them). Technically, the film is an absolute mess. It looks like it was shot on a shoestring, which it most assuredly was, and having Carol Kane wander through the background of some scene isn’t going to convince us otherwise. It seems to have been edited by someone new to the cutting edge world of digital editing software – why else would the movie warp into a bubble for no good reason, and what’s with the black bar that covers Lazar’s penis as he emerges from a pudding-like mud bath? Is that supposed to be funny? Or commentary? Either way, the gag is flaccid. Rockwell should have consulted Todd Solondz on how that’s done.
What makes the movie a really disappointing waste of time instead of just a huge, colossal, you-could-have-been-catching-up-on-“Boardwalk Empire” fail, is that it could have been a great opportunity to showcase Peter Dinklage. Dinklage, as shown by his numerous film appearances and highlighted by this year’s jaw-dropping first season of “Game of Thrones,” is a terrific actor capable of great range but here he’s saddled with a melodramatic back story (revealed in the pile-up of a third act), moping around the movie like Phillip Seymour Hoffman in “Synecdoche, New York.” Half of the time you think: if he’s got cancer, he’s not talking enough to let us know. He’s also burdened with having an entirely “reactionary” performance, forced to respond to the “kooky” things happening on screen. Everyone else is at least attempting some kind of loose sense of fun in their performances (Lena Headey shows up in a wig almost as bad as Buscemi’s), but Dinklage isn’t given the appropriate amount of snap for himself. It’s a shame. And it keeps “Pete Smalls Is Dead” from ever really coming to life. [C-]