"Life is short. You do whatever makes you happy."
Hey. Why was "A Redneck Comedy" added to the film's original title? It's not listed that way in the film's credits, nor do I see it on the film's official website. So whose idea was it to include the word "redneck" in this E1 Entertainment DVD version of American Cowslip, the 2009 indie comedy (and it is part of the title because it's listed that way on the keepcase's spine, too)? We'll discuss that later...but I don't like it. As for the film itself, it's an intriguing idea, and some of the performances are funny and touching--most notably the lead's: newcomer Ronnie Gene Blevins, who co-wrote this movie about a junkie agoraphobic searching for life's "perfect moment." But some unsteady comedy, a lachrymose sentimentality, and a fatal case of the "indie cutes" defeats the idea. A few bonus extras for fans.
Blythe, California. Population: apparently unhinged. In this small desert community, 30-year-old Ethan Inglebrink (Ronnie Gene Blevins) has a big problem: not only hasn't he stepped off his lawn for the past nine years, but he's fatally addicted to heroin. Obsessed with his garden, and in particular, with growing a perfect American cowslip flower, Ethan manages to pay his rent by allowing his female poker buddies to deliberately lose to him. Older matrons Roe (Diane Ladd), who promised Ethan's dying mother she'd look after him, Sandy (Cloris Leachman), and oversexed, filthy-mouthed Lou Anne (Lin Shaye), who thinks she's Barbara Streisand, all care for Ethan, but it soon becomes apparent to them that something is dangerously wrong with their "diabetic" friend who needs help shooting up. Not exactly helping matters is next-door neighbor and Ethan's landlord, Coach Trevor O'Hart (Rip Torn), a near-psychotic who wants Ethan evicted for failure to pay the rent...and for failure in life. Ethan's tight-assed brother, Todd Inglebrink (Val Kilmer), the town's sheriff, is convinced God is the last hope for floundering Ethan, but Ethan believes salvation lies with 17-year-old neighbor, Georgia (Hanna Hall)--a belief not shared by Georgia's angry father, Cliff (Bruce Dern), who thinks Ethan is a maggot, or neighbor Samantha (Priscilla Barnes), a former lover of Ethan's who now works as a prostitute. Only the annual "Best Garden" contest and its cash prize can possibly save Ethan now...or is it all too, too late?
Okay, the "redneck" thing. I'm not going to make a big deal out of it...but why add that particular qualifier on the title for the DVD release? I didn't see anything in the movie that would point specifically to making fun of that clichéd stereotype (the Coach might be the closest one), nor can I see any reason why E1 Entertainment would want to make potential buyers think this frantic indie comedy/drama was in-line with the latest Jeff Foxworthy/Larry the Cable Guy straight-to-DVD offering. I don't have a problem with the word "redneck" itself; sure it's the only remaining pejorative that can be used with impunity (and without fear of a lawsuit), but we bitter clingers are big enough to laugh it off. What I do mind is the senselessness of adding it to the title, and giving the impression that American Cowslip is something that it is not
Not that what it is, is all that hot. At first glance, it's an intriguing idea for a comedy/drama: an agoraphobic heroin addict who can't leave his childhood house and garden, and who uses said garden as the only personal expression of beauty and hope left to him. Newcomer Blevins has an interesting combination of hyperkinetic madness and utter sweetness of disposition that goes a long way towards making this entirely unsympathetic character likeable. He's able to simultaneously bring qualities of pity and humor, and aggression and total submission, to the character that, had the script and direction given him a more focused framework, would have considerably elevated the film. But tone is everything with a film like American Cowslip, and director/co-writer Mark David goes for the broadest pitch possible here. And that's just fine...when actors have guidance and the jokes hit the mark. Now, I like broad comedy just as much as I can appreciate more sophisticated fare. But this isn't "broad," it's "ten miles wide." And that tenor is almost impossible to sustain for more than ten minutes unless the director and screenwriter are fanatical about structure...with a solid script where every joke scores. Otherwise, it flies apart like a cheap watch, and unfocused frenzy replaces true humor. As it does here in American Cowslip.
Extreme scatological and sexual humor doesn't offend me, either (in fact, I welcome them). But so-called "gross-out" humor just for the effect of making the audience recoil in disgust when the film is trying to say something serious, is always a cheap laugh. I'm sorry, but it's embarrassing to see fine actors like Cloris Leachman and Diane Ladd vie with Lin Shaye of bad-taste notables like Kingpin and There's Something About Mary, for who can be the most outrageous, just to be "cinema funny outrageous." I believed Blevins could be his character...but I never believed Leachman and Ladd and Shaye were anything more than props used to deliver shocking dialogue to make the younger audience laugh at those wild old coots. It's condescending and remarkably unfunny after the first few lines of assault. Now there's no denying that Rip Torn is funny when he hits a particularly good string of ad-libs, and he does bring a bit of strange pathos and unsettling violence in one good scene where he chews out Ethan who's dangling at the edge of the street curb. But when Torn's off his mark and the jokes aren't working, it's obvious in the end he's just there to throw out obscenities made "funny" because they're coming out of some old goat. Only Bruce Dern seems to be able to keep his dignity intact, playing straight his variation of the control-freak psychos he essayed numerous times before, getting laughs every time by not trying so hard to get laughs (Dern should have done more comedies in his career). As for Val Kilmer (who's the most prominent face on the DVD cover, even though he's second only to poor, wasted Falk for the least screen time of the majors here)...what the hell has happened to this man? Painfully unfunny trying to put over an officious, inflexible authority figure that someone like Dan Ackroyd could have done in his sleep, Kilmer seems both determined and hesitant in his bumbling-forward manner, and the result is a complete bust.
As for the story itself, its obvious points and messages are made early and often, and the rest is all frenetic repetition (maybe this would have worked better as a short?). Any movie that has to constantly and literally spell out its intentions, all in an effort to be sunshiny whimsical (with a dash of junkie despair thrown in for leavening), is doomed to be superficial. I actually enjoyed the strange, hyper-fueled scenes in Ethan's house where he deals with his addiction, becoming enraged on the phone when he wants to score, and blissfully nodding out when he fixes. The desperation of his situation comes through strongly, and had the movie focused on that aspect alone, it might have had some heft. But unfortunately, the biggest cliché of male-written and directed indie cinema is introduced--the navel-gazing, self-indulgent child/girl/elf/woman, wise-beyond-her-years teen-waif who just naturally falls in love with the thirtyish scumbag in her life--and that's all she wrote for American Cowslip. Pretty soon talk about rainbows and "happiest moments of my life" are bandied about with cogent, complex observations like, "Life blows." So by the time the film finally wraps up (it's far too long at 107 minutes) with this heady summation (as "Ethan Gump" runs towards his freedom/death), "If we can leave just one remarkable thing behind, it's all worth it in the end...what a ride," we were already half-expecting this kind of "message for morons" generality that plumbs about the same depth as a Hallmark™ card. And in a truly disastrous coda (why can't the movie end?), Ethan's dead plant is brought to life again with his ashes, growing poor-CGIncredibly into the sky, after ghost-Ethan gives us a little Chaplinesque skip and a jump. What started out as obvious but intriguing, ends up sophomoric and trite.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.