New Jersey’s bleak meadowlands star in “Twilight Highway,” a fitfully engaging dark comedy better served by the perversely attractive barrens than the undeveloped skills of writing-directing team Laurie Taylor-Williams and Merce Williams. Quirky script has its appeal, but hampered with rather stilted direction and an uneven cast, “Twilight Highway” looks to travel a bumpy commercial road.
With a plot that swings on serendipity and a run-down motel setting that’s heavy on moody atmosphere, pic goes begging for bold, stylish direction in the David Lynch mode. Instead, it makes do with some interesting cinematography (reminiscent of those kitschy photo books detailing decrepit highway-side attractions) and two good performances, particularly from veteran comic Sandy Baron as a creepy, too-accommodating motel owner.
Other notable acting turn comes from D.V. De Vincentis as Jimmy, a young Ohio man on the road to New York City with longtime pal Gene (Damon Saleem). Both have their reasons for heading east, but plans are temporarily scuttled when their jalopy breaks down near the Bayview Motel, a highway dive in the Bates Motel tradition.
Only other guests (thanks to proprietor Lenny’s quick hand with the No Vacancy sign) are two young Trenton women on the run from a violent mobster boyfriend. Shelby (played by co-director Taylor-Williams) is the Jersey girl with big hair and bad b.f., and she’s decided to hole up in the Bayview while owner Lenny (Baron) tries to pawn a ring for her. Shelby’s nervous, good-girl cousin Mary Ann (Gillian Hemstead) is along for the non-ride.
Manipulating repeated delays to keep this at-first unhappy foursome from moving on, Lenny — eccentrically bedecked in archaic smoking jacket and given to playing piano to invisible audiences in the motel’s vacant lounge — is haunted by a past that might or might not involve his guests in some strange way. Before too long, the boys and girls have paired off, and no one’s in a hurry to leave.
Happy times are threatened, however, when Shelby’s angry, gun-toting b.f. (Chris Maelan) and his mobster uncle (Sal Bracco) show up, resurrecting decades-old secrets that involve Lenny and his odd behavior. Script wraps up everything too neatly, with an unbelievably happy coda tagged on.
Baron seems to be having a grand time playing the oddball Lenny, keeping the audience off guard as to whether the smarmy lounge lizard is more Norman Bates or Prospero. De Vincentis makes an edgy, appealing leading man, even when handed much of the script’s strained whimsy. Neither Hemstead nor Saleem make strong impressions — good or bad — in the secondary pairing, but Taylor-Williams commits her biggest producing mistake in self-casting the lead femme role: Her rigid, one-note turn does serious damage to the film’s balance.
Film could benefit from some heartless editing, but canny location work gives this low-budgeter a more interesting look than might be expected: Characters dine al fresco next to the motel’s empty, weed-ravaged swimming pool, or joyride through Jersey’s industrial wasteland. Had everything else in the picture been as keenly observed and executed, “Twilight Highway” would face a far smoother course.