*½/**** Image B Sound B- Extras C
starring James Van Der Beek, Jeffrey DeMunn, Mary McCormack, Fred Weller
screenplay by Jim Biederman, Stuart Burkin, David M. Korn
directed by Stuart Burkin
by Walter Chaw A micro-budget independent venture shot in twenty-six days, Stuart Burkin's auteur debut Cash Crop (a.k.a. Harvest) is a pro-pot film (not to be confused with The Killing Fields, a Pol Pot film) that has as its headliner TIGER BEAT icon James Van Der Beek (Varsity Blues), who does indeed lend his Bert-browed visage to about five minutes at the beginning of the movie. The real stars of the show, however, are B-list veterans John Slattery (Traffic, Eraser) and the always excellent Mary McCormack (The Alarmist) as a rural Pennsylvania sheriff and a DEA agent, respectively. It is their performances alone which nearly rescue Cash Crop from its awkward plot progression, a handful of embarrassing subplots, and a few secondary turns that run the gamut from "torturous" to "unwatchable." Slattery and McCormack don't make Cash Crop a good movie, don't get me wrong, they just make it a barely "not as terrible as it would otherwise have been" movie that I'll forget, Lord willing, in a day or two.
As strip-malls and townhomes eat up the picaresque Pennsylvania countryside and the milk market gets gobbled up by evil mid-west and California milking monoliths, all of the dairy farmers in the rural areas of the state are having some trouble making payments to the bank. Somehow squeaking by is the Yates family: patriarch Jake (Jeffrey DeMunn, The Green Mile), Stepford mother Alice (Lisa Emery, A Map of the World), wet-cardboard single-mom sister Lou (Julianne Nicholson, Storm of the Century), and our hero, Jackson Browne-looking teen Andy Yates (Wil Horneff, The Sandlot).
Andy plays the fiddle in a barn whilst perched on a bale of hay, ostensibly as practice for his regular gig playing fiddle at pond-side bonfire drug parties. The early part of the film details Andy driving his burner friends (one of whom is--sigh--Van Der Beek) around town as they score half a pound of pot, in preparation for said pond-side festivities, from the only Latino in the state of Pennsylvania. To avoid the ire of the Latino community, the Latino waiter/drug supplier's sister (the just-awful Paula Garces) is presented as a candy-striper love interest to squeaky clean Andy in the first of many story threads that go absolutely nowhere very slowly.
When DEA agent Becka Anslinger (McCormack) shows up in podunk Pennsylvania (don't ask me) to investigate a sudden spike in marijuana usage in, I guess, this section of podunk Pennsylvania, it suddenly becomes clear to Andy how his pa is managing to keep his dairy farm alive even with the conspicuous lack of dairy cows...or any cows. Actually, it only gradually becomes clear to Andy that the Yates clan is involved in spreading a little "Irie, mon," and then after Andy receives a new radio for his truck that is clearly out of the Yates' price range. Will Agent Anslinger, with the help of hometown Andy Taylor-esque Sheriff Johnson (Slattery), bust the grassroots grass peddlers? Will Andy bed the robotic Latina (who looks like Winnie from "The Wonder Years", but isn't as 'dynamic') before his dad gets capped by evil cook/drug lord Ray (Evan Handler) or, worse yet, dragged off by the Feds?
McCormack is exceptional, bringing an earthy reality to the film it does not otherwise deserve. Although she's asked to do a multitude of inexplicable things (digging through a giant dung pile, tromping a rural cemetary, chain-smoking like the caseworker from Beetlejuice), McCormack soldiers through with an air of ease that is enviable and wasted, here and eternally. Similarly, John Slattery is pitch-perfect as small-town sheriff Johnson, playing both sides against the middle, keeping the peace and tipping off the locals that it's probably time to cheese it (though if Agent Anslinger were interested in secrecy, she probably shouldn't have begun her investigation in the local watering hole at breakfast time).
Unfortunately, hyphenate Burkin seems unaware that his most interesting story is in the mildly antagonistic relationship between these two law-enforcement officials, each of whom is interested in a personal justice at odds with the other's. More egregious is Burkin's blithe frittering of a pair of performances that not only belong in a better film, but belong on the proscenium of this film. Cash Crop is, for all of its good intentions (illustrating the plight of the Pennsylvania dairy farmer and the subsistence-level chronic merchant), an episodic and chronically unfocused film that can't decide if it's a character study, a crime drama, or an Altman-eque mystery without a mystery. It spends too much time establishing an unnecessarily complicated conspiracy intrigue concerning good farmers and bad farmers, and, perhaps realizing that it was at least five characters top-heavy, begins dropping people willy-nilly.
Andy's pals (including--sigh--Van Der Beek) disappear after about fifteen minutes, mother and sister disappear after about an hour, a key banker character disappears at about the same time, a girl who gets hit by a car much to the consternation of Andy vanishes into the ether with no explanation, while still others swim in and out of the action as the haphazard plot demands. More disturbing than the looseness of the script, however, is that the conclusion of the film is the worst kind of tidy deus ex machina, force majeure. It would inspire more outrage if you weren't so ready for the film to end, anyway.
Cash Crop suffers not from a lack of vision, but from an Icarean ambition. It wants to be a teen coming-of-age film, a romance, a Great Santini-esque Oedipal drama, a courage-of-the-single-mom platform, an anti-drug statement, a pro-drug crop statement, an anti-fed statement that has as one of its two strongest characters the fed in question, a pro-farmer anthem with evil redneck farmers, and a Romanticist embrace of the natural with a heart as objectivist as an Ayn Rand über-capitalist. It isn't that Cash Crop has no idea what it wants to be, but rather that it has an idea that it wants to be everything--and in scattering its focus so fine across a multitude of disparate and inimical concerns, Cash Crop ends up being about nothing at all.
The Artisan DVD release is crammed with special features, which is a puzzling thing for many reasons, not the least of which is that the only transfer available is open-matte. The colours are vivid, with an early shot of a helicopter landing on a field of grass standing out as an example of not only good motion processing, but also an admirable lack of bleed or pixellation. Later shots centering around a pair of bonfires display that same level of color separation and absence of blurring. A fine presentation visually, ignoring the lack of a widescreen option. The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio is underutilized, however, with no high nor low moments to speak of, but the sometimes-appealing songs, by Lyle Lovett and Wilco, to name a few of the artists, do sound nice in their digital glory. A 2.0 Dolby track is also present, and likewise squandered on a film that just does not have anything in the way of aural pyrotechnics.
Burkin and Slattery provide a director/actor commentary that reveals neither has seen the film in its completed form prior to this recording, which results in a series of non-sequitous expressions of surprise ("Oh, did that get cut out?" "Did what get cut out?"), and explications of upcoming scenes that are no longer there. Adding to distraction is the fact that Burkin is either talking into a speaker phone, Laurie Anderson's microphone, or a bucket. Technical hurdles aside, Burkin, a recent graduate of the vaunted NYU film school, reveals himself to be a self-deluded jackhole of the first order.
Using such words as "theme" and "juxtaposition" and "foreshadowing" is fine if you're actually talking about something of value or note; Burkin is under the wrong impression that Cash Crop has elements worthy of both study and academic affectations. He spends a good deal of time explaining how he's using a Wellesian deep focus in an entirely negligible scene, a couple of minutes explaining the groaner of an ironic subtext embedded in Agent Anslinger's nicotine addiction and lactose intolerence (ha!), and, worst of all, Burkin isolates frankly incomprehensible images in the film as vitally important clues to an overall trope centering on the Eden of provincialism.
What Burkin does in the commentary track without intending to is lend credence to the idea that Cash Crop is an entirely rudderless (bordering on pretentious) liberal tirade that has no real target and no real heroes. It advocates for a socialist green utopia while stumping for filthy lucre and pimping the brief presence of James Van Der Beek, with a skipper who believes that he's crafting a symbol-laden love letter for rural Pennsylvanians. The only poetic irony evident in Cash Crop is its director's belief in its importance. Burkin is in the early running for Ed Wood of the Year.
Five deleted scenes in an atrocious unwashed video transfer consist mainly of establishing shots or transitions. Burkin's commentary for the edited scenes is nearly identical for each, some variation of, "This scene was edited for time purposes, I guess, it really has nothing to do with the film but I had a real affection for it." A theatrical trailer, interactive menus, a superfluous ten-image photo gallery, and text-rich biographies of cast, crew, and filmmakers round out the DVD. Originally published: June 14, 2001.