The Mower the Merrier 

The Citizen Kane of lawncare comedies

The Citizen Kane of lawncare comedies

Lots of movies trumpet themselves as independent features, even when they’re part of a pack trailing a trend-setting success: the quirky crimefest, the trailer-trash farce, the low-key ensemble piece with slumming guest stars. But whatever the film’s faults, nobody can accuse the brain trust behind Joe and Joe, a strange, diverting little comedy shot for $35,000 by three first-time Nashville filmmakers, of hopping a trend.

That’s because the movie’s vehicle of choice isn’t a bandwagon, it’s a riding mower—a gleaming red beauty of a machine coveted by two lackadaisical loafers in a sleepy Cape Cod neighborhood. When they aren’t manhandling a vintage push mower, lanky idea-man Joe (David Wysocki) and his best buddy Joe (Sean Patrick Brennan) fish, guzzle beer, and daydream about forming their own lawncare company. When a mysterious sprite of a woman, played by Tracy Griffith, entices them with a tale about buried loot and a hermit who was once the toast of Broadway, the Joes see a ticket to weed-whacker Nirvana.

One Joe and Joe fan—of which there are more than a few, owing to a series of local showings over the past year—calls the movie “Merchant-Ivory meets Dumb and Dumber,” which perfectly describes the movie’s balmy blend of lowbrow humor and arthouse languor. The writer-director, David Wall, makes many first-feature mistakes. The movie feels padded out to feature length, the camera setups need more variety, and budget constraints apparently forced the filmmakers to limit retakes and to trim the most interesting character, the reclusive Broadway composer. The movie could’ve used a lot more incidents and supporting characters to set off the Joes’ lethargy.

That said, fixing those problems and speeding everything up might have ruined the movie’s fluky charm. Once your pulse decelerates to the movie’s dawdling pace, there’s much to enjoy: the poky summer-afternoon ambience, the breezy, sunswept look of Kramer Morgenthau’s cinematography, the amebic banter between Joe and Joe. And as daft as it sounds, the loony-tune premise is the movie’s saving grace—the Joes’ single-minded obsession with weed control is offbeat enough to provide some much-needed edge.

Joe and Joe was shown last year at the Sundance Film Festival; when Wall, Wysocki, and Brennan got a distribution deal they didn’t like, they turned it down and decided to distribute the movie themselves. After seeing it, Carmike Cinemas took the unprecedented step of booking Joe and Joe at five Nashville theaters, starting this weekend. With this gutsy move, Carmike has created an example for other theater chains to follow and has offered hope to Nashville’s struggling independent filmmakers. And it has given a shaggy underdog of a movie a chance at reaching an audience—as well as a chance at a substantial video deal.

Mowing a yard is a perfect noonday relaxer. It doesn’t tax your mind, the repetition clears your head, and the whole routine leaves you feeling chipper and pleasantly sundazed. For all its big flaws and modest virtues, Joe and Joe is a fresh-cut lawn of a movie.

A lean, mean machine

You have to sit through an overstuffed, undercooked turkey like The Saint or Volcano to appreciate Breakdown fully. Coming after months of blockbuster bloat, Breakdown is a minor classic—a super-tough, stripped-for-speed killer B in the tradition of Mad Max and the first Terminator. Anyone who’s made a long haul through unknown territory will shudder at the setup: A couple (Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan) driving through Arizona experiences car trouble in desolate desert country. A friendly trucker (J.T. Walsh) stops for help; the wife rides with him to an air-conditioned truck stop up the road.

And that’s all you need to know. From there, the director, Jonathan Mostow (a talent to watch), ratchets up the tension with unerring skill, as the waiting husband is sucked into a suburban motorist’s nightmare of roadside America. Mostow has composed the movie of equal parts of The Vanishing and Duel—the chilling randomness of one, the motorized menace of the other—and for added unease, he has thrown in a healthy dose of Deliverance’s class/culture paranoia. But there’s none of the padding that weighs down most Hollywood thrillers—no dopey subplots, no comic relief, no by-the-numbers backstories or gooey moralizing. The narrative is all muscle.

What’s impressive about Breakdown isn’t just its tautness; it’s also the movie’s simplicity. Most action flicks try to batter the audience senseless with assaultive editing, blaring music, and increasingly grandiose (and preposterous) set pieces. For the genre, Breakdown has a reassuringly human scale—it saves its one big whopper of a struggle for the dynamite finish. The most hair-raising scenes involve nothing more than someone trying to stay cool in the midst of mind-rattling peril; even the villains’ method and motivation seem plausible. When violence erupts, the nimble screenplay (by Mostow and Sam Montgomery) relies on a can’t-fail formula for suspense: an ordinary person trying to escape life-threatening situations using only the means at hand.

Of course, it helps that we identify so strongly with Kurt Russell, an underrated leading man who’s always convincing, whether he’s trying to wriggle meekly out of a gas-station flare-up or shimmy down the side of a speeding truck. No indestructible superman, he pulls off the same neat trick Bruce Willis managed in the first Die Hard—he makes viewers think, “I could do that.” (Plus he meets the unbeatable Jackie Chan Requirement: He’s scrawnier than the beefy bad guys.) And it helps that the situations are consistently challenging, scary, and ingenious. With Russell’s anxious face taking in each sick new development, every twist of the plot is calculated to give the audience fits.

In the early 1950s, B-movie thrillers developed cult followings because they didn’t have the money to mess around; they had to deliver the goods in the leanest, roughest way possible. Breakdown isn’t that cheap, but it looks as if its entire budget wouldn’t have kept The Rock supplied with gunpowder. That also works in its favor. Breakdown reminds you how much fun action movies were before their bulked-up brawn blotted out their brains.

Cheaters never win

Of all the shopworn clichés of recent indie movies, none is more grating than the cataclysmic burst of violence used as a screenwriter’s all-purpose problem-solver. The plotting of Traveller is so scroungy and loose-limbed that you just know the filmmakers have no idea how to end it; when all else fails, torture and sexual threat are good for a big finish. Sure enough, the violence comes right on cue, with the added delight of a little girl being threatened with rape and mutilation.

This violence is especially crummy in Traveller, which starts out as a genial comedy-drama with sparks of novelty. Bill Paxton (who produced) plays the descendant of a race of Irish-American con men who’ve prowled the back roads of America for a century. On a whim, he teaches the rube-fleecing ropes to a novice (Mark Wahlberg), who unwisely talks him into teaming up with another salty old grifter (James Gammon).

The scenes detailing the men’s scams are swell, and they’re backed up by solid research. I’ve always wondered about the how-tos of an infamous regional roofing rip-off, and screenwriter Jim McGlynn tells all in zesty detail. McGlynn is also sharp enough to make his career criminals pretty closemouthed. The movie’s short on reservoir-canine low-life fatmouthing, and the terse exchanges among these flim-flam artists are gritty and authentic—as is the romance between Paxton and a barmaid played by Julianna Margulies.

The always watchable Paxton hasn’t used his disarming smile and good-ol’-boy act this effectively since One False Move, and he’s surrounded by sharp character actors, especially Gammon, a human corncake laced with flea powder. And Jack Green, the cinematographer turned director, gets the milieu of honky-tonks and no-tell motels right down to the wobbly barstools. (A killer soundtrack of retooled country oldies doesn’t hurt.) Too bad the ending is such a stupid, nasty cop-out. It’s twice as disappointing to leave a movie about cheaters feeling that you’ve been cheated.


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