Tony award-winning Broadway director Gregory Mosher’s first feature is far from being as distinguished as that of some of his peers, mainly because of a largely uneventful and predictable screenplay by William Wheeler that explores, not very profitably, the murky world of telephone marketing. Vince Vaughn’s portrait of a decent man caught up in a sleazy racket evokes some past movie heroes without becoming a figure you can root for. “The Prime Gig” faces an uphill battle theatrically, with perhaps a better life in ancillary.
With an outline bearing some similarities to the recent “Boiler Room,” Wheeler’s screenplay establishes Vaughn as “Penny” Wise (even the name is grating), an expert at the phone con. He works for a run-down organization managed by Mick (Stephen Tobolowsky) and is spokesman for fellow employees, including Wallace Shawn and George Wendt, when the hand-to-mouth outfit shuts down without money to pay the staff.
These lengthy preliminaries, which occupy at least 20 minutes of running time, are tangential to the main plot, and the colorful characters created for these early scenes are abruptly dumped once the story proper begins.
Penny is headhunted by Caitlin Carlson (Julia Ormond), who initially poses as a blackmailing police officer to test his integrity, but soon reveals herself as the rep of legendary telemarketing guru Kelly Grant (Ed Harris), just out of prison and eager to make a killing selling stock for a huge gold-mine project. Penny is rightly suspicious, though he and other members of the team hand-picked by Caitlin and Grant, including hotshot Zeke (Roman Malco Jr.), are flown to the mine site and given an impressive spiel.
In a fancy office with the latest in communications technology, Penny and the others go to work selling stock in the mine, and, after a painfully slow start, Penny becomes best at the game, winning not only handsome cash bonuses but also Caitlin.
Given that much of the film’s drama involves characters talking on the phone, Mosher was faced with the formidable challenge of making the material engrossing. His decision to sign on ace d.p. John A. Alonzo was an important one; Alonzo’s crisp, widescreen work brings to “The Prime Gig” a distinction it otherwise lacks.
The problem lies in the predictability — and, at the same time, the unbelievability — of Wheeler’s screenplay. You know pretty much where this is heading from the start, and yet there are still enormous problems with the motivations and actions of some of the key players in the later stages. Not helping the situation is some wincingly “clever” dialogue (“Credit cards are my children, and they’re hungry,”).
Burdening the hero with a crippled and forever complaining buddy (well played by Rory Cochrane), a character presumably supposed to be a voice of conscience and who proclaims that telemarketing is “fundamentally evil,” is another of the screenplay’s liabilities.
Vaughn is a strong presence as the tired, basically honest, con man, but he lacks the charisma to carry the film. The sheer style and professionalism of Harris enlivens all the scenes in which he appears, playing a character we know is deeply untrustworthy yet who has considerable charm and powers of persuasion. Ormond is effective as the femme fatale, and supporting roles are all well limned.
Pic’s technical credits are sleek in every department.