Movies can deliver a powerful message by humanizing what many consider to be the dregs of society, casting a light on what demons drive the darkness and bigotry in their heart. It’s the meaning of great art, finding humanity in the least-likely places. “Cellmates,” which is not great art, centers on former Ku Klux Klansman Leroy Lowe, an unpleasant, ornery man with decidedly unenlightened racial politics, as he attempts to stay true to his rotten self from behind bars. So far, so unpleasant.
Taking a folksy tone, “Cellmates” frames Lowe as a former political mover-and-shaker to just another undereducated grunt from within prison, defanging his racial views by downgrading them from a macro to micro level. Unfortunately, Lowe’s new roommate, Mexican day laborer Emilio, provides a challenge for this Southern fried bigot, with his ersatz accent, kinky hair and liberal views. The victim of a strong response to a worker’s strike, Emilio counts his days until he is free, unfazed by Lowe’s casual racism. The simple foreigner with uncomplicated politics just wants a friend, see?
“Cellmates” movies at a lugubrious pace, assuming we want to spend a lot of time with these characters. But moments like Lowe’s rage forcing him to strangle and beat Emilio are framed and performed like live-action “The Simpsons” highlights, an injection of broad comedy into what, on the surface, is fairly broad drama. This isn’t helped by Hector Jimenez’s outlandishly campy performance as Emilio. Mugging for the camera and dragging out his thick accent, Jimenez attempts to embrace simpleton superficiality as if his character was reliant on slapstick. A one-note actor, Jimenez rose to prominence in Jared Hess’ freak shows “Nacho Libre” and “Gentlemen Broncos” but, taken outside of a cartoon world, he’s simply a slack-jawed ham.
More appropriate for the tone is Tom Sizemore’s turn as Lowe. As in, Lowe isn’t meant to be a comic character, but he certainly is miserable company. Sizemore, a discomfiting actor who seems to have lost the deep-bone intensity he displayed around the early aughts, gives a performance that would be booed off a dinner theater stage. His inconsistent Southern accent is meant to showcase a chatty Southern bumpkin, but for a character meant to be a social butterfly in political circles, he doesn’t look comfortable interacting with anyone, his words spilling out in mumbles before they’re fully formed. Even in his earlier years, when his performances had an air of danger and coked-out aggression, he was never suited to be a leading man. Sickly and dog-faced in his later years, and not-at-all invested in the material, “Cellmates” confirms that Sizemore is no longer the screen presence he once was.
Worse yet, the film tries to pair this bitter racist with a love interest, the warden’s pretty maid Madalena (Olga Segura). The crux of the film is Lowe learning to help others and see beyond racial lines, but it’s hard to believe when the maid character, who spends most of her screentime cleaning the floor surrounding Sizemore’s feet, has no actual onscreen lines, her role reduced to voiceover via letters she shares with this unpleasant convict. Of course, these letters are in Spanish, leading Lowe to find his calling (accepting different backgrounds) and Emilio to find his (translating for the gringo). Racial equality, at last. [D-]