While the title may suggest an old, poorly dubbed martial arts movie, “Goat on Fire & Smiling Fish” proves a fresh, ingratiating, ultra-low-budget American indie comedy. Concerned with the bonds of brotherhood and the vicissitudes of modern love, the mature pic boasts a perceptive script, rich performances and date-movie appeal. At its world-preem screening in Toronto, the pic stole the aud’s collective heart (it bested a field of 31 to win the fest’s Film Discovery award), indicating initially brisk action in all markets. Smiling distrib will find word-of-mouth on fire but will have to conquer the double whammy of cheapo look and, of course, that handle.
A brief preamble gets the moniker conceit out of the way: Tightly wrapped, mid-20s Chris and his happy-go-lucky, slightly younger brother Tony Remi (real-life siblings Derick and Steven Martini) were dubbed “Goat on Fire” and “Smiling Fish” by their Native American-Italian grandmother. In the first of many audacious caprices that pepper the story, the hunky brothers now share their middle-class childhood home, since the folks — who had met on a Los Angeles studio tour — have died in “an unfortunate traffic accident on the 105 freeway.”
Parallel and leisurely intertwined tales begin as both their relationships begin to crumble. Chris’ long-time g.f., Alison (Amy Hathaway), has taken to sobbing during sex, while Tony’s exuberant partying finally alienates the comically exasperated Nicole (Heather Jae Marie).
To make matters worse, Chris’ accounting firm boss, Burt (Wesley Thompson), orders him to pick up elderly uncle Clive (Bill Henderson) every morning on his way to work. Though Chris is initially reluctant, Clive’s eccentric behavior begins to grow on the young man. Meanwhile, struggling actor Tony has met the more mature Kathy (Christa Miller), who delivers his mail.
On an audition, Tony discovers that Kathy has moved from Wyoming to give her sassy young daughter, Natalie (Nicole Rae), a chance at breaking into commercials and sitcoms.
Soon Chris meets gorgeous transplanted Italian animal wrangler Anna (Rosemarie Addeo) at a party, beginning a promising relationship that grows to include the friendship of Clive. In the pic’s most off-the-wall and appealing plotline, the breezy curmudgeon is revealed to be a retired sound man for the all-black Lincoln Motion Picture Co., pining for his lost love and still capable of recording the “perfect magnetic wave” between two lovers.
The dramatic tension, such as it is, arises from the unexpected, as a failed audition threatens to break up Tony and Kathy by sending mother and daughter back to what Natalie glumly calls “Wye-boring,” and the source of Alison’s coital blues muddies the waters for Tony and Anna.
Like the most notable left-field American comedies of the last few years (“Clerks,” “The Brothers McMullen,” “The Opposite of Sex”), “Goat” is a volatile mixture of overt irony and underlying sincerity, enhanced by authentic dialogue and a calibrated delivery that emphasizes the script’s shrewd humor.
On the strength of the Martin Scorsese Young Filmmakers scholarship and subsequent apprenticeship on the Moroccan “Kundun” set, NYU grad Kevin Jordan brings an unforced authority to the Martinis’ story that belies his rookie status. As the easygoing rhythm and benevolent worldview are established early, the tart glibness of the dialogue in the script by Jordan and Derick Martini can be enjoyed without detracting from the dramatic arc of the story. Pic is less about the title character traits than it is about the value of family in navigating the vagaries of life.
Perfs are aces down the line, with character vet and jazz musician Henderson a standout as the aging but still feisty Clive, remembering his glory days working alongside the likes of Noble Johnson and Paul Robeson. In the same spunky vein, young Rae typifies the pic’s overriding tone by delivering some dangerously precocious lines with unforced aplomb. Whether tossing casual epithets at each other, scrumming at rugby or just providing gruffly warm moral support, the brothers Martini bring a veracity to their relationship as the brothers Remi.
“Drew Carey Show” vet Miller proves to be just as wryly funny and appealing on the bigscreen (her late, soulful, front-seat monologue is a standout), with newcomer Addeo bringing just the right mix of mystery and appeal to the nicely underplayed Anna.
Per Jordan, writing was begun about a year ago and pic was shot in 12 days on a budget of $40,000. Thus, merely OK tech credits are perhaps unintentionally Dogma-like, enhancing the scruffy sincerity on display.