Poor White Trash,” writer-director Michael Addis’ debut film, abounds in enough frantic energy for several comedies, but barely enough laughs for one. Brisk pacing, fresh-faced talent and some clever dialogue go only so far toward disguising the film’s one-note, trailer-trash-to-riches premise, which plays like a hodgepodge of comic scenarios borrowed from the recent “Happy, Texas,” “Drop Dead Gorgeous” and “Small Time Crooks.” Mid-range name cast should provide sufficient draw for pay TV and video auds, where pic will soon land following perfunctory festival berths.
Pic opens with a couple of bright, funny scenes in which childhood friends Mike (Tony Denman) and Lennie (Jacob Tierney) escape the boredom of small-town life in the Midwest by playing a vicious prank on the proprietor of a local convenience store. When the prank backfires, it could mean a prison sentence for the boys and the end of Mike’s college dreams, unless, that is, they can enlist Lennie’s Grandpa Ron (William Devane) for their defense. Hiring Ron means spending money they don’t have, so the boys soon embark on a woefully misguided robbery attempt, which leaves them in even bigger trouble than before.
Enter Mike’s mom (Sean Young), a trampy, out-of-work nurse who wants Mike to escape from the confines of trailer-park life even more than he does. So, with new boyfriend (Jason London) in tow, she agrees to aid in the boys’ continued burglary schemes, provided the money goes toward Ron’s legal fees and Mike’s college tuition. Naturally, a series of hackneyed plans are hatched, and badly bungled misadventures ensue. There’s so much plot here that the film can barely keep up with itself, with exhausting results.
All of the expected vignettes are present, and Addis treats them reverentially, as though they were something new: the amateur robbers bickering with each other in the midst of a heist; the small-town denizens recognizing the crooks despite their disguises; the inept double-crosser who gets duped himself. When Addis does hit on something funny — such as the way Mike, who hopes to major in psychology, analyzes everyone he meets — he runs it into the ground by repeating the gag ad infinitum. Addis demonstrates a certain technical facility — he and cinematographer Peter Kowalski create colorful, peppy compositions that belie the film’s low budget — but little aptitude for comic timing.
Like the recent “Where the Heart Is,” “Poor White Trash” never convinces that its poverty-row characters are anything more than recognizable Hollywood actors in dirty makeup and ragged clothes, affecting twangy drawls. Arguably, the players in “Poor White Trash” have even less to work with, given that their roles are defined in broad stereotypical strokes (Mom spreads her legs for anything that moves, Ron’s law firm is a storefront offering divorce specials for $75 a pop). The ensemble casting, however, is shrewd and effective, and there’s a good deal of pleasure to be gleaned from Young’s vamping and Devane’s scenery-chewing.
The film’s real undoing is the head-splitting shrillness of the delivery, the unrelentingly frenzied level at which pic is pitched. At its best, in its early, more subdued passages, “Poor White Trash” provides a couple of pristine comic moments. At its worst, it spirals uncontrollably into an unfunny void.