Thomas Haden Church is one of cinema’s most underrated actors. His gruff, baritone voice and rugged mien shot him to stardom in “Tombstone” and catapulted him to critical acclaim in “Sideways.” In between turns in the Tobey Maguire-led “Spider-Man” franchise, he has settled in as a dependable character actor. And yet, these workmanlike performances only make one long for the day when the veteran character actor can land meatier lead roles. Well, look no further than Alex Lehmann’s subdued, contemplative follow-up to “Paddleton,” a two-hander making its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival — “Acidman.”
In the film, Dianna Agron stars as Maggie, the beleaguered daughter of Church’s character. Maggie lost touch with her father years ago following a mysterious falling out. What is more peculiar is why, after all this time, she’s decided to track him down by traveling over 2,000 miles toward his secluded neck of the woods. In a slight script co-written by Chris Dowling and Lehmann, the answer to that question broadens and subtracts in importance with regards to a bigger, looming issue: Maggie’s father believes he can contact aliens. In fact, every night, stretching deep into the dawn, he and his dog trudge up a hill to a cliff to observe three red lights he believes are UFOs.
“Acidman” aims for frank conversations about parenthood, loneliness, and mental health — but often comes up short. Even so, in this all too straight-forward drama, Church, an actor perfectly ripened for this role, gives one of the best performances of his career.
His character building begins early, namely through his weathered appearance. Church has always sported a world-weary aura, and in “Acidman,” brandishing a beard and wolf-gray hair that causes him to resemble John Hurt, he turns that weariness up a few notches. Church plays the father as seemingly aloof, yet knowing. He can offer a quick barb, suddenly turn silent, staring out at an unknown object, while showing just enough vulnerability for us to want to know more about this man. Church also goes full tilt, at one point yanking out a socket a la Mel Gibson in “The Beaver.” And some of his line deliveries, like when he pulls out, like a puff of smoke, the words “I’m fucking stoned,” are hooks in themselves.
The aesthetics of “Acidman” are just as arresting. Cinematographer John Matysiak (“Old Henry”) often favors handheld shots, inviting a whimsical air to blow through this intimate film. The mix of golden hour compositions and violet-colored interiors, coated by Christopher French’s ethereal score, adds further sci-fi undercurrents.
It’s a shame, however, that every other component of “Acidman” lacks the specificity and texture of Church, along with his look and feel. Whenever an eager upstart actor would appear in a supporting role in “Murder, She Wrote,” they always seemed to whither into overacting once they shared a scene with the great Angela Lansbury. It often felt like they thought they needed to impress the effortless actress. In scenes with Church, Agron scuccumbs to a similiar “Murder, She Wrote” effect.
Every smirk or swing of the eyes from Agron hits every emotional beat with the subtlety of a clanking typewriter. She isn’t enigmatic enough to pull the viewer into the film’s central question — why has Maggie traveled all this way? — nor bewitching enough to keep us at arm’s length. In this film concerning a fractured relationship between father and daughter, both actors need to possess a hesitant openness to keep the viewer invested. Instead, “Acidman” slows to a crawl because Church and Agron never feel like they’re acting in the same movie.
Agron’s shortcomings aren’t wholly down to her: The underdeveloped script does her no favors. We learn that Maggie ran away from her boyfriend Ben, yet the pair are still trading messages. She desperately wants to figure out why her dad dropped out of her life, and more importantly, whether he needs to help, especially as he stays in his room playing electronic music composed of harmonic distortions to himself. But she never exists as her own person. Instead, Lehmann wants to make “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” except from the jilted adult child’s perspective, but without really caring about the adult child’s perspective. It all adds up to another woman character written by men who lacks their intended complexity.
Despite his strong performance, a similar dearth of complexity afflicts Church’s character, too. He exists purely as a mythical figure without any attention to building out his ambiguity. Kids often egg his home. They scrawl the word “acidman” in spray paint across his house. And yet, when tragedy does occur, by way of the many people who encroach into his orbit, this world is so insular that the event leaves an initially seismic but disappointingly brief impact. Thankfully, Church can fill in the void to create a richer inner world than the script can provide. Agron, unfortunately, can’t. And the movie crumbles around her.
It’s a surprising outcome, considering how well Lehmann leveraged anxiety and absurdity by neatly calibrating each tonal contour in “Paddleton.” That magic barely reemerges here, as the film lands on an ending so hokey and so trite, that the previous goodwill “Acidman” already earned nearly evaporates. At least Church finally found a leading role again. If only his deliberate, yet invigorating performance wasn’t overshadowed by everything around him.
“Acidman” premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.