As a veteran writer on shows like “24,” “Nikita,” “The Commish” and “Miami Vice,” director Joel Surnow surely knows how to create an hour of television that keeps moving. So it makes it all the more curious that his skills abandon him for his feature debut, “Small Time,” which gathers up a couple of pretty good leads in Christopher Meloni and Dean Norris, but abandons them in a narrative that’s starts off confused about the point-of-view from the first frame, and eventually spins its wheels for a low stakes drama where not much of consequence actually happens. So perhaps in that sense, “Small Time” lives up to its name.
Apparently “inspired” by a true story (though there’s not much evidence of inspiration here), the story follows a couple of successful, used car dealership owners, Al Klein (Meloni) and his best buddy Ash Martini (Norris), who seem to have it all figured out. The business is in good shape, they’re respected by their peers, and they can sell anything to anyone. But Al has been having some problems. He cries at the drop of a hat, his ex-wife Barbara (Bridget Moynahan) has settled down with an older, wealthier, far more stable man, and selling cars just isn’t cutting it for him anymore. However, that changes when his son Freddy (Devon Bostick) decides to forgo college, and instead learn his old man’s trade. Al is heartened, Barbara is mortified, but Freddy gets his way, and so begins the summer of fun. With the film introducing the tale with voice-over-narration from the POV of Freddy, you would think it would be his story “Small Time” would focus on. You would be wrong.
Despite setting the stage for a riff on the coming-of-age story, “Small Time” essentially pivots around Al and his mid-life malaise. Even Ash, played by the always engaging Norris, is essentially pushed to the background. But the issue is that Al’s problems just aren’t all the interesting. What it boils down to is whether or not he can tell Freddy — who quickly becomes one of the slickest operators on the lot — to quit wasting time selling cars, and do the right thing and head to college. That’s not much of an ethical or moral decision, so much as something called parenting, and it hardly makes for compelling drama. Even when Surnow’s film feels like it’s about to let loose, it shortchanges itself, particularly when it comes to Freddy’s rise from bumbling salesman to expert negotiator. That entire journey is basically covered in a single montage, and the changes Freddy goes through — watching his parents get divorced, and his mother settle in with a new man — are barely acknowledged except in a couple of on-the-nose, slightly overcooked scenes.
Even along the fringes of the film are interesting elements that don’t get enough space to have any sort of impact. A couple brief scenes of Al and Ash hanging with a bunch of seasoned colleagues, including a sorely underutilized Kevin Nealon, feels like the remnants of what was probably a more developed story thread at one point. Chick (Xander Berkeley), the man who provides a home for Barbara, is stuck in a difficult position of trying be a parent to a child that isn’t his, while delicately navigating the relationship his wife still has with her ex-husband. But that nuance is sanded away with Chick mostly mostly serving as a stock villain, a convenience for the story so that when Barbara eventually throws herself at Al late in the film to compensate for her unhappiness, we don’t abhor her or her actions.
“Small Time” wants to point out something meaningful, mirroring teenage change, and midlife changes of course, but it gets so stuck in the dull plot points of its own story, it never has a chance to resonate. A story about one summer in the life of a high school graduate with his future on the line, with his parents trying to find a way to let their son pursue his dreams, but not spoil the opportunities he has coming, has never been this uninvolving. Inert from the start, and presented with little emotional depth or weight, “Small Time” gets the car started but doesn’t go anywhere interesting. [C-]