Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Maybe a Rental

The guy in this movie I saw last night used to be in that TV show a few years back. The one about the podiatrist in California who part-time manages a golf-ball salvage company near Pebble Beach? Remember that one? It was on for, like, three, four seasons. I liked him on that show, although I remember a lot of the other characters better. Still, he was pretty good in it. Now his hair’s all different, but he still mostly looks the same. You know the guy I’m talking about? The one on that show?

Anyway, in this movie he’s a small-time dealer of decorative cow skulls. For Southwestern decorating or whatever. He lives out in New Mexico and has this whole setup with a rendering plant to get cow skulls. Then he bleaches them and decorates them with turquoise and silver and paint. All the tourists go crazy for that stuff, so he has a nice little business and his life seems okay. But then this corporation wants to buy him out and mass-produce the skulls he makes. He’s got a lock on the business because of his deal with the rendering plant, so they want to take over the whole operation. The company wants to make the skulls faster and cheaper, and then sell them at these stores they have all over the highways, a chain of gas stations and restaurants called Hoof ’n’ Mouth.

The company sends out a PR specialist lawyer or something to sway his decision. It’s not totally clear what her credentials are, but she’s ridiculously pretty. That’s the love-interest angle. She’s played by the girl from that cheerleader movie. You know the one? It’s been a few years since that movie, and she looks older now, but it was still hard to believe this girl was a hotshot lawyer with a huge corporation. She looks more like she’s still hoping to pass her bar exams. But she was pretty good, I guess. Anyway, she comes to town and keeps trying to make appointments with the guy so she can convince him about the benefits of selling out. He keeps dodging her.

Oh, I should mention here that the company wants to just go over the guy’s head and make a deal directly with the rendering plant, but two of the main executives at the plant are the guy’s twin cousins. And they don’t like the Hoof ’n’ Mouth company, anyway, because years ago they were staying at one of its luxury hotels with their fiancees, who then ran off with members of a Latin jazz band playing at the hotel lounge. So they’re against doing any kind of deal, and every time the subject comes up, the twin cousins get all weepy about the women who ran out on them. It’s a pretty corny shtick.

Besides that, though, most of the story is made up of stilted conversations between the two main characters. It’s textbook romantic comedy stuff. You can sense right away that they’re both really attracted to each other, but they’re on opposite sides, so it’s all mixed messages and awkwardness. And they’re always trying to look like they’re not looking at each other, but of course they are. Averted eyes, stammering, shifting from foot to foot—the whole deal. But she’s very persistent. He keeps saying no, and she keeps finding new angles, coming around day after day with another offer. Finally after a week or something, she gets the guy to meet her at a local diner, and then they start the serious flirting.

You can tell that the woman knows she’s not going to get anywhere in the negotiations, so it’s funny after a while how she just keeps coming up with reasons to go visit him again and again. He always acts annoyed, of course, but he always stares after her just a little too long when gets into her rental car and drives off. Or he takes much longer than necessary with their banter before he insists on knowing what her visit’s about this time. So it’s easy to see that he likes the fact that she keeps showing up, even if he does get pretty sarcastic in some of the scenes.

But when they’re at the diner, the whole thing just comes together for them. She’s nervous, and she looks for a really long time at all the items on the menu, even though she later ends up ordering the first thing she mentioned she was in the mood for. But while she’s staring at the menu, the guy just stares at her like he’s lovesick. And then she looks up, directly into his eyes and raises her eyebrows very, very slightly. And he doesn’t look away for a couple of seconds until the waitress comes over and interrupts them. Both of them get nervous and start fumbling around, trying to place their orders like nothing just happened.

It seems like everything should fall into place then, but it’s just the beginning of the end. At least for the guy who has the skull-selling business. He and the lawyer fall in love and all, and the big romantic song from the movie, “Piece by Piece” (a horrible song title considering all the rendering plant scenes, really) plays over the tastefully filmed scene of them going back to her motel and going to bed together. (“Tastefully filmed” means you totally don’t see anything, so don’t get excited.)

Then the lawyer goes and has a meeting with her bosses at the local Hoof ’n’ Mouth. She makes this totally unworkable pitch that the company should give up buying the guy out and should somehow work with him instead. The bosses get mad, and she’s immediately sent back to the company’s headquarters in Atlanta. She’s upset but she has to go if she wants to keep her job. And then the big corporation somehow forces a board meeting at the rendering plant, and when some of the board members find out just how much money they can make by partnering with them, they sell out for all the animal parts they want. Then they all have this big barbecue to celebrate. It’s kind of hard to watch.

With everything he’s worked for now gone, the guy packs up a truck and heads out to Atlanta. The lawyer left without really telling him what was going on, but he finds out how she got transferred so quickly and goes after her. But when he gets there, he’s in for a surprise. She’s been involved with someone else all along. Part of the reason she left without more of a fight is that she thought it would be better for everyone. This gives the main character a chance to have a big, ranty speech in which he talks about how betrayed his heart has been. It’s also kind of hard to watch.

The last part of the movie is a kind of goofy chase as the guy hits the road, heading back out west in search of a brand new start. And then after half a day of soul-searching—a long montage of the lawyer being distressed and remembering all the great stuff about this new guy she loves while “Piece by Piece” plays again—she decides that she’ll go after him. She ditches her stable, fulfilling life, the handsome, sensitive guy she’s engaged to, and her financially secure future. She packs a bag and heads west to follow her impulsive, unemployed, former kitsch artisan of a lover.

They both drive and drive. It’s supposed to be funny and cute and romantic and just a little dramatically frustrating, but whether you swallow that or not, what basically happens is that they keep going to the same places at exactly the wrong time. Just after he pulls out of a convenience store, she walks out of the ladies room and goes inside to get some coffee. He stops at a roadside vendor to buy homemade tamales, and she zooms past to get to the next town. And since she ends up taking the last vacancy at the motel in town, he has to drive another hundred miles to find a place of his own. On and on like that, for countless scenes, all the way back to New Mexico, where the figures he can start a new business making Day of the Dead dioramas to sell in Santa Fe.

In the big, final scene, he ends us being the one to find her, rather than the other way around. He stops at this strip mall along the highway, and he gets into a conversation with a guy who works at a memorabilia store. Then out the window of the store he sees that the lawyer from Atlanta is in the same strip mall. She’s ordering lunch at a fast food burrito shack. He stops in the middle of his conversation and goes out the door.

This is where the film just chucks all pretense at believability and unexpectedly plays the art-house card. One guy in the theater found this so jarring that he started making a lot of comments about it right out loud. It’s a wonder he didn’t get kicked out, but that’s probably because a good portion of the audience agreed with him. What happens is, as soon as the guy leaves the store, there’s a jumble of confusing jump cuts and you end up following the rest of the action to four separate conclusions, none of which is obviously the right one. It’s not like a dream sequence or a wish sequence or anything. It just goes down one path, then another, then another, and finally another. But in all cases, the conclusion draws to the same scene, only with a different spin.

First the guy leaves the store, stands looking at her across the parking lot for a good long while, shakes his head sadly, and gets into his truck and drives on down the road. The woman never even sees him. She sits at one of the big round concrete tables alongside the burrito place and stares off down the highway in the opposite direction. She looks really sad, and you can tell she’s pretty much giving up now. Then the guy running the burrito stand calls out several times to get her attention. He tells her that her order is ready.

Then they jump back and the guy leaves the store, goes over to the burrito place, and waits for her to turn around and see him. When she does, she gasps and runs over to him. Neither of them says anything. They just hug for a long time, then sit down anxiously at the table. She tells him she’s been chasing him across six states. He tells her that if she’s tired of chasing him, he’s ready to stop now. They kiss. Then the guy running the burrito stand calls out several times to get her attention. He tells her that her order is ready.

Then they jump back again and the guy leaves the store, goes over to the burrito place, and waits for her to turn around and see him. When she does, she gasps, but she doesn’t run over to him. Because he looks really mad that she’s there, and she doesn’t know what to say. She tries to explain what happened and how now she’s come to her senses, but he doesn’t want to hear it. He’s still mad that she lied to him, and now this stunt has just made it all the more obvious to him that she’s a very unstable person. She risked her job, let her company order her around against her will, betrayed the man she had been with, then put her whole life on hold and went chasing after somebody she hardly knows. He doesn’t want to hear anything more from her. She looks really upset, and he goes to his truck and drives away. You get a chance to see just how really sad he is once he turns away from her, but that didn’t seem very redeeming after he just blasted this woman in public without even bothering to hear her out. The woman sits down at a table and starts crying. Then the guy running the burrito stand calls out several times to get her attention. He tells her that her order is ready.

Then they jump back one last time and guy leaves the store, stands watching her from a distance for a while, and then goes over to her. He taps her lightly on the shoulder. She turns and gasps, then waits for him to say something. He looks nervous, but finally asks her how the food is here. She laughs lightly and says it’s her first time to eat there, so she’s not sure. Then after a pause, she starts trying to apologize for everything in a rush. He gets her to calm down, and they sit at a table and begin to talk slowly and deliberately to one another, expressing themselves as best they can. It’s apparent that he’s apprehensive, but he wants to see if they can salvage something and go on from there. She agrees and takes his hand. Then the guy running the burrito stand calls out several times to get her attention. He tells her that her order is ready.

The screen goes black. Credits roll. Songs by people you’ve never heard of play over the credits. And they note in the credits that no animals were harmed in the making of the film, which is comforting given the large part rendering plants played in the movie. Plus all the cattle skulls. But, seriously, how’d they get their bones out without the cows coming to harm? Did anyone even bother to check on that? Maybe they’ll explain that some more on the DVD release, which is probably happening any second now.