If nothing else, “Wilder Napalm” deserves a special mention in the history books as the first and only pyrokinetic romanticcomedy-drama. Beyond that, there’s little to recommend in the slow-moving, fuzzy-minded yarn. Like many shaggy-dog tales, it reads better than it plays, with the drollery more apt to raise a few smiles than ignite laughter. Commercial prospects for the long-on-the-shelf TriStar release are ashen.
The Foudroyant brothers — Wallace (Dennis Quaid) and Wilder (Ar-liss Howard) — have that oh-so-special gift of thinking real hard and making things explode in flames. It’s great for party tricks like lighting cigarettes. In fact, Wallace has managed to incorporate such shenanigans into a clown act he performs in a low-grade traveling carnival.
In sharp contrast, Wilder has spent decades avoiding the spotlight. He works quietly and alone in one of those shopping mall film-processing joints. Yet he’s married to the spunky, brash Vida (Debra Winger).
The brothers are hopelessly estranged, and there’s mysterious bad blood involving a prank Wallace inflicted on his brother, and deeply ingrained tension over Vida’s affections.
But that might change when the carnival arrives in town and parks itself in the very mall where Wilder plies his trade.
If this all sounds like gobbledygook, one can only say that the filmmakers have worked diligently at rendering the material incomprehensible. The very title suggests something quirky and unusual. While Vince Gilligan’s screenplay certainly provides enough anecdotal material, director Glenn Gordon Caron foolishly assumes there’s some logic to be gleaned here. The moral really isn’t any more brilliant than “Don’t play with matches.”
Winger and Quaid appear at a loss to make sense of their characters and it’s painful to watch such gifted actors struggling to maintain their dignity. Howard emerges slightly better if only because one can see the semblance of a character arc. However, it’s a part that calls for an absence of flamboyance — the one thing the film so desperately needs.