As anyone who's getting in slope time at Sundance knows, it's always best to fall uphill. Plunging face-first into some snow is the presciently monickered "Nobody's Baby," which aims somewhere between "Dumb and Dumber" and "Three Men and a Baby." Offering painfully unfunny comedy, feature is a stix pic even hicks will likely nix.

As anyone who’s getting in actual slope time at Sundance knows, it’s always best — in life as well as on skis — to fall uphill. Plunging face-first into some very yellow snow is the presciently monickered “Nobody’s Baby,” which aims somewhere between “Dumb and Dumber” and “Three Men and a Baby.” Hitting that target would be bad enough; missing it is something else. Offering painfully unfunny rube comedy drenched in even more painful warm-and-fuzziness, vet writer-director David Seltzer’s feature is a stix pic even hicks will likely nix. Down the line, this Ugly Americana will best do a quick theatrical two-step in regional release, with potential for improved home viewing. Offshore, baby’s adoption prospects will need Sally Struthers’ help.

Tenor is set with pre-credit prologue in which kiddie cuddlin’ is interrupted by Pa’s untimely shotgun death. Orphaned inbred Buford Dill (Gary Oldman) and younger sib Billy Raedeen (Skeet Ulrich) hence grow up sans loving guidance. Caught reading other people’s mail for entertainment, the brothers get handed stiff sentences, with further proviso that they never see each other again. This is too much to bear, prompting a paddy-wagon escape that separates the duo.

Hitching across state lines to Utah, Billy witnesses (well, causes) a highway smashup that leaves a family dead. They were mean, though, so it’s OK. Still alive in the wagon, however, is an innocent babe Billy saves from history’s slowest-moving explosive gas fire. Hillbilly and youngun land at a truck stop where waitress Shauna Louise (Radha Mitchell) quickly susses there’s precious little infant-wrangling know-how in “Dad’s” repertoire. They’re packed off to a nearby trailer park, where surly Estelle (Mary Steenburgen), still conveniently heavy with the milk nature intended for her recent newborn — she gave him up to adoption and a better life — is coerced into providing suckle.

Also residing hereabouts are Vern (Peter Greene), Shauna’s woman-beating creep of a b.f., plus brassy bottle blonde Stormy (Anna Gunn), and her beau, Dog Havasu (Gordon Tootoosis). Latter is a Native American, which means that while everyone else is busy bein’ white and trashy, he stands around soulfully intoning ancient wisdom.

Buford soon turns up, figuring the baby can be ransomed for cash to any surviving relatives. But to his dismay Billy has become more than a little devoted to the wee foundling. Things are complicated further by a used-car shyster (Ed O’Neill) who blackmails the dim duo. On Stormy’s tip, they plan an insurance-scam robbery that goes slapstickaliciously awry, but everything turns out just right, in a family-values-affirming way.

Still, there’s fairly graphic gore (during shootouts) and recurrent gratuitous nudity (the sole use made of Robyn Adamson, as Buford’s improbably bodacious ex-g.f., who scarcely gets a line to speak).

A witless script wrings few laughs from its retread conceits, but it too often doesn’t even try: Feature’s sentimental streak runs mile-wide and puddle-deep, with Brian Tyler’s orchestral score providing an oily surface sheen. What’s most toxic, however, is having to watch these actors sweat for their paychecks. Oldman vanishes into mutton chops and Walter Brennan mannerisms, gamely making an idiot of himself, to absolutely no humorous result. (His character’s signature riff: rectal-wart distress.) Steenburgen, Greene and O’Neill are allowed to be little more than unpleasant; Matthew Modine surfaces in a nothing role.

Twinkling amidst the cow pies, Ulrich clearly relishes playing dum-dum, and his disarming sweetness lends the film whatever fleeting conviction it can claim. Still, what a waste. When he and indie treasure Mitchell (struggling to transcend banal material) get a late prison tete-a-tete scene together, the poignancy they conjure startles — all the more so for being surrounded by 110 minutes of Cheez Whiz.

Postcard views of Utah scenery aside, design and tech contribs are uninspired. Loud country tunes fill the odd soundtrack gap.

Nobody's Baby

Production

A Millennium Films presentation of a Boaz Davidson production. Produced by John Thompson, Shanit Schwartz, Harvey Kahn, Douglas Urbanski. Executive producers, Rainier Bienger, Willi Baer. Directed, written by David Seltzer.

Crew

Camera (color), Chris Taylor; editor, Hughes Winborn; music, Brian Tyler; production designer, Mark Hofeling; costumes, Pamela Withers; sound designer (Dolby Digital), James Lay; line producer, Don Schain; casting, Nancy Foy, Jeff Johnson. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 21, 2001. Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Billy Raedeen - Skeet Ulrich Buford Dill - Gary Oldman Shauna Louise - Radha Mitchell Estelle - Mary Steenburgen Dog Havasu - Gordon Tootoosis Stormy - Anna Gunn Vern - Peter Greene Baby - Elaina and Emily Merkey Tess - Robyn Adamson Norman Pinkney - Ed O'Neill Sonny - Matthew Modine Evaline - Kathryn Haley

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