Viva Las Nowhere
**/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras B
starring Daniel Stern, Patricia Richardson, Lacey Kohl, Sherry Stringfield
screenplay by Richard Uhlig and Steven Seitz
directed by Jason Bloom
by Walter Chaw A bizarre cross between Psycho, Something Wild and Tender Mercies, Jason Bloom's Dead Simple is one of those derivatively named direct-to-video productions that attempts the black comedy genre with a reasonable amount of aplomb and wide-eyed enthusiasm. It's a Very Bad Things farce of escalating atrocities, and though Dead Simple never achieves the kind of sustained comic brilliance and continual nastiness of that movie, it does manage a few edged moments and keen performances from a cast that includes legendary bug-eyed hambones Daniel Stern and James Caan.
Lovable loser Frank Jacobs (Stern) owns a motel in the literal middle of America and acts out his dream of being a country-music singer every week at his local bar's amateur night. Married to shrill harpy Helen (Patricia Richardson) and shackled to a failing tourist business in an area without any kind of tourism, Frank finds hope in the discarded singer/floozy wife Julie (Lacey Kohl) of honkytonk veteran Roy (Caan). Before long, Julie's siren femme fatale agrees to sing Frank's songs, accidentally kills Frank's wife, and convinces the poor schlep to hide the body. The situation muddies when a local Baptist minister agrees to help Frank open a nightclub at his motel, and unpredictable Roy, Helen's twin sister Wanda, a state trooper convention, and an old army buddy with eyes for Julie, blow into town.
Bursting with massive plot and tonal shifts, Dead Simple is cleanly directed and reasonably well-scripted. It has no more aspirations than to be an amusing, theatrical comic thriller and achieves its modest goals with a good deal of professionalism if not a surplus of wit. Mainly, Dead Simple relies on the strength of Daniel Stern's goofy physicality and overwrought slapstick, a shtick transplanted whole from his work in the Home Alone films. Though his perplexed exuberance can be taxing, Stern's growing apoplexy as dead bodies begin piling up is at least appropriate to the generally light tone of the film. James Caan, complete with Willie Nelson wig and a surprisingly agreeable singing voice, lends his trademark vein-bursting tension, and Broadway actress Lacey Kohl, spending the bulk of her role in one of two skintight outfits, is easy on the eyes and the ears. Sherry Stringfield lends a welcome presence as a kindly bar owner with dreams of her own, while Patricia Richardson, who is never good, not surprisingly does a decent job as some variation of an unpleasant person.
Too ordinary to be a cult film and too odd to be a mainstream success, Dead Simple is a moderately entertaining genre piece with a frenzied conclusion that, however ludicrous, is enjoyable. It plays like an affable community theatre production produced with whimsy and a black humour, and is occasionally guilty of the same small theatre flaws of overacting and narrative inconsistencies. All the same, Dead Simple is a remarkably agreeable and atmospherically scored--if ultimately forgettable--danse macabre.
Artisan's DVD release of Dead Simple (released as Viva Las Nowhere at its only theatrical screening, during the Seattle Film Festival) features a clean widescreen transfer that stands out at its climax during a nighttime open-air concert. There is no color bleed or obvious digital artifacting, black is black, and shadow detail is excellent. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundmix features a nice utilization of ambient effects while allowing for crystal clear dialogue. Best, its numerous singing sequences are not obviously overdubbed, blending with the correct amount of volume and timbre. It's a small touch, but one that speaks to a level of craftsmanship that is welcome even in a low-budget feature such as this.
A commentary track featuring director Jason Bloom, composer Andrew Gross, production designer Alexander Hammond, and editor Luis Colina is packed with interesting technical information and a charming, self-deprecating quality that marries an understanding of the shortcomings of the film (including a rather glaring continuity error) with an appropriate level of pride. The quartet discusses some of the difficulties in working on a micro-budgeted independent, including building sets on permafrost that inevitably began to thaw during production, and hiding the snowy winter of Calgary with dryers, steamers, and bushels of hay. A fourteen-minute behind-the-scenes documentary is a standard series of self-aggrandizing and obsequious cast and crew interviews intercut with scenes from the film. It is interesting to learn, though, that Daniel Stern, in preparation for his stage performances, was booked into a one-night gig in a small country club as "Frank Jacobs," to some small success.
The disc is rounded out with a standard cast & crew filmography, a trailer, a 17-image photo gallery, and a collection of trailers for Picking Up the Pieces, Bad Seed, Panic, and Cecil B. Demented. Originally published: August 21, 2001.