Jeff Goldblum's peculiarly rattled appeal finds a rare dramatic lead fit in "Auggie Rose," writer-director Matthew Tabak's intriguing mystery-cum-character study of a man obsessed after he witnesses a stranger's premature death. Favorable reviews and word-of-mouth could earn this pic modest legs as a rep house and rental sleeper.

Jeff Goldblum’s peculiarly rattled appeal finds a rare dramatic lead fit in “Auggie Rose,” writer-director Matthew Tabak’s intriguing mystery-cum-character study of a man obsessed after he witnesses a stranger’s premature death. Broadcast in April on Cinemax (under the generic/irrelevant title “Beyond Suspicion”), unspectacular but quietly absorbing feature from Franchise Pictures opens on two Los Angeles screens on June 15 after a one-week San Francisco run. Favorable reviews and word-of-mouth for this Roxie Releasing pickup could earn it modest legs as a rep house and rental sleeper.

Goldblum plays John Nolan, an L.A. life insurance sales exec whose comfortable routine is shattered one day when he stops by a neighborhood deli to pick up a specialty wine order. Sending a slightly surly new clerk (Kim Coates) back to the stockroom for a second bottle, John and the owner are suddenly held up at gunpoint by a hopped-up assailant. When the oblivious clerk re-emerges, the panicked robber shoots him. Soon after, John finds himself cradling the fast-fading man, then accompanying him via ambulance to an emergency ward. By morning, Auggie Rose has expired.

Understandably shaken, Nolan first ponders his own there-but-for-the-grace-of brush with death. Once immediate trauma subsides, however, he remains curiously fixated on the man whose last conscious moments he’d shared — more than ever upon learning Auggie was a recently paroled con with no relatives or intimates willing to claim his body.

Unable to accept this anonymous, pauper’s grave end to a life that had just (potentially, at least) gotten back on track, John begins to irk both investigating police and live-in girlfriend Carol (Nancy Travis) with his persistent curiosity about the deceased. They can’t figure out his motives; neither can he, exactly, beyond sensing something of personal importance in this quest.

A casual misunderstanding finds him taken for Auggie by residents in the dead man’s dingy apartment building. On the sly, John begins spending considerable time there, probing Auggie’s sparse belongings for clues — to the detriment of his own white collar job and home life.

This toying with another’s identity enters a risky new phase when John discovers Auggie had been corresponding with a young rural woman, who even now is en route from Texas to meet her pen pal. Intending to break bad news gently, John greets Lucy (Anne Heche) at the bus station — but in a moment’s hesitation, once again lets himself be taken for the dead man instead.

“Auggie Rose” doesn’t bear deep scrutiny: Just why John considers chucking his privileged life for a minimum wage “fresh start” is murky at best, a plot conceit more convenient than credible. Still, feature debutante Tabak avoids blatant illogic by tuning both script and direction toward low-key, character-based detail.

At first, pic suggests it’s headed toward “Fearless”-like mid-life crisis mysticism, then noirish suspense. But those signals turn out to be red herrings (despite one menacing subplot involving Timothy Olyphant as a would-be criminal confederate). While story twists aren’t ingenious, they do keep viewer guessing right up until an open-ended yet satisfying fade.

The most entertaining deer-caught-in-the-headlights eyes in showbiz are well deployed here, as Goldblum’s customary air of distracted eccentricity lays bare protag’s simultaneous bewilderment and pleasure at assuming another man’s identity. It’s a lovely, mercurial yet focused perf.

Potential neurotic-tic face-off with Heche (who doesn’t appear until well after midpoint) fails to materialize; she’s effectively restrained as a woman who’s unsophisticated but hardly naive. Travis is OK in a sympathetic but less developed role, while Richard T. Jones leads well-modulated support cast as a concerned police detective.

Prod package is slick but understated, eschewing stylistic flash. At times, original score by Don Harper and Mark Mancina pushes emotional buttons a tad more conventionally than pic’s ambivalent tone deserves.

Auggie Rose

Production

A Roxie Releasing release of a Franchise Pictures presentation of a Persistent Pictures production. Produced by Andrew Stevens, Matthew Rhodes, Dan Stone. Executive producers, Elie Samaha, Jeremiah Samuels. Co-producers, Mark McGarry, Richard Pagano, Tracee Stanley. Directed, written by Matthew Tabak.

Crew

Camera (color), Adam Kimmel; editor, Brian Berdan; music, Don Harper, Mark Mancina; production designer, Caroline Hanania; art director, Christopher Tandon; set decorator, Lisa Fischer; costume designer, Wendy Chuck; sound, Felipe Borrero; assistant director, William Paul Clark; casting, Eyde Belasco, Rick Pagano. Reviewed at the Roxie Cinema, San Francisco, May 10, 2001. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

John C. Nolan - Jeff Goldblum Lucy Brown - Anne Heche Roy Mason - Timothy Olyphant Carol - Nancy Travis Officer Decker - Richard T. Jones Emanuel - Joe Santos Auggie Rose - Kim Coates
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