It's not easy being an independent filmmaker. Success always seems a single script auction away, your artistic intentions consistently compromised by a cash-poor need to sell - or just sell out. Sometimes, you get lucky, and culminate enough famous friends to pull off a clever cinematic stunt. Take director Joe Eckhardt and writers Cecily Gambrell and Colby Kane. With Robert Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo in the producers chair (among others), and a b/c list anthology of actors including Corin Nemic, David Faustino, Jason Mewes, and Michael DeLorenzo, the trio managed to get their pot-themed Tinsel Town fable Nice Guys made. Of course, putting images on celluloid and having it actually distributed so that people can see it are two completely different ideals, and for a while, it looked like Guys would never experience the latter. Now comes High Hopes, a re-titled version of the trio's attempted entertainment. Aside from a few bright spots, however, no amount of Hollywood amity can help this dreary endeavor.
Tom is a desperate actor. Auditioning for a role in an upcoming James Bond film, he'll do anything to get ahead - and that includes dating dull bimbette star Morgan. See, she's promised to appear in pal Ben's ensemble comedy, meaning that all of Tom's friends - including Quebert and Arnie - will see a part of the action. When the couple breaks up, however, the guys are left high and dry. Then Quebert learns that his drug connection Rocko has just inherited $2.5 million in high grade government pot from a shady dealer. Even better, Tom hears that there is a $250,000 reward for its return. All they have to do is hijack the weed from Rocko, turn it over to the Feds, and they have the cash to make their movie. Of course, as with most cockamamie schemes, things don't work out quite the way they planned.
There is something unsettling about watching the wannabe entertainment of High Hopes. You can sense it is several scenes, like the stand-off between Michael DeLorenzo and classic character actor (and project producer) Danny Trejo. As the latter eats garlic chicken, fingers fiddling through the savory goodness, the former sits back and says...nothing. That's right, nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Minutes go by, and as Trejo enjoys his meal, DeLorenzo plays it mute. And when he speaks, it's anticlimactic. There are a lot of uncomfortable pauses in this independent quasi-comedy. In fact, entire Teamster brigades could drive through many of the silences director Eckhardt uses to impose a kind of tension on his otherwise lax slacker tale. This is a 15 minutes idea dragged out to a bloated, flagging 90, all apparent value leeched out by incomplete characterization, underutilized subplots, and performances sometimes phoned-in from other parts of the industry unknown. Eckhardt's name cast can't compete with his uneven approach. Sometimes, High Hopes pops with directorial invention. Most of the time, however, it lays there like an improvisation that can't find its source inspiration.
As far as the acting goes, everyone deserves better. Nemic argues for his abilities in a funny opening scene where he puts on an English accent for an audition. It's great, and most of the time, so is he. Similarly, former Bud Bundy Faustino does a good job of balancing lust with his eternal loser status. The biggest revelation is the artist formerly known as Jay - Jason Mewes. Playing an actual person with dimension and drive, he's more than just a joking pothead. Indeed, with his work here and in Zack and Miri, he's making quite a name for himself outside Smith's Silent Bob. And when you toss in the likeable love interest played by Ms. Gambrell and the various cameo turns, you can start to see how High Hopes could succeed. But then something doesn't click - and that unsettled feeling comes back again. Take the moment when Andy Dick is "tricked" into recommending Nemic for a role. There is no joy in watching this former wild man work clean. We need him to be blue and crude. Instead, he's so laid back he's practically inert.
Indeed, a lot of High Hopes plays this way. It takes almost an hour before we get into the plot proper, and even then, Eckhardt overplays the montage card to give us a sense of scope. The last act also introduces us to quirky government agents, one of which is essayed by the famous Fake Shemp himself Ted Raimi, and a number of narrative improbabilities which already capsize a significantly sinking ship. With bosomy babes who never bare it all, drug humor that tends to lack either element, and jokes that fall flat or feel forced (like Jason Marsden's deaf mute "retard" Wendell) this is a well meaning movie that just can't get its scattershot script together. We would follow the adventures of Tom and his pals if they simply had something humorous to offer. Instead, High Hopes reminds one of every other story of wannabe Hollywood 'playas' who can't find an inroad into said insular playground. There is nothing worse than a real waste of talent, and luckily, this film is not such a misuse. Given the people in front of the lens, however, it should have been a lot better.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image offered by Lionsgate is very good. High Hopes actually feels like a big time Hollywood affair. The colors are crisp and Eckhardt's camerawork is professional and polished. Overall, the transfer tricks on into thinking this will be a quality production. The rest of the movie undermines this initial reaction.
Sonically, there's not much to be done with the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix. The dialogue is easily discernible...and that's about it. Musical cues are kept to a minimum and there is no other aural ambience offered. No budget filmmaking definitely equals uninspired sound design.
Want to know the production history of High Hopes, aka Nice Guys? Then give a listen to the audio commentary provided as the sole significant bit of added content. Made in June of '05 in 11 days, Eckhardt and Gambrell discuss most of the pros and cons of their no budget effort with candor and deadpan aplomb. It's not the most exciting cinematic discussion, but it does fill in some of the glaring gaps present. Aside from a trailer and a collection of Lionsgate commercials (sorry, previews) that's it. Still, having the filmmakers present to explain their motives makes this DVD package something special.
How do you rate a movie that looks good, is competently cast, and wears its worthy intentions right out their on its upturned, hardworking sleeves? Do you dismiss it outright because it's as boring as a trip to your elderly aunt's assisted living facility, or do you recognize the effort and be a little more lenient? In this case, High Hopes will earn a realistic Rent It. That means that anyone interested in such a solid if unexceptional effort will be able to judge it sans a major cash drop. But be warned - there is much more to the set-up of this film than the actual payoff could ever provide. Eckhardt and crew can definitely brag that they bucked the trend and managed to make a movie on their terms within certain strict confines. Unfortunately, High Hopes' overall quality is another matter all together.
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