Daniel Stern gets a major work-out against type in this frequently funny, occasionally touching, but sometimes flat comedy set in America's cold and cheating heartland.
Daniel Stern gets a major work-out against type in this frequently funny, occasionally touching, but sometimes flat comedy set in America’s cold and cheating heartland. Familiar tube faces, including Patricia Richardson (having a hoot as evil twins), could help bring in the unsure, especially in the fly-over zone pic so witheringly depicts, although “Viva Las Nowhere” is too small-scaled to get the full Vegas treatment. Sweet supporting role for Sherry Stringfield, on the eve of her “ER” return, should bring her more bigscreen attention.Leaving his urban anxiety far behind, the long-limbed Stern takes on rural neuroses as Frank Jacobs, sad-sack co-owner of the Middle-o’-America Motel and Petting Zoo — a neglected podunk Kansas spot offering dusty rooms and stuffed animals. Frank feels pretty neglected, too, especially where his dreams of C&W stardom are concerned, and he’s not exactly flavor of the decade for his sharp-tongued wife. As played by level-headed sitcom mom Richardson, Helen Jacobs is the kind of beer-swilling trailer park floozy a guy might dream about feeding to the family cougar.In fact, violent thoughts do come into the picture with the arrival of Julie (Lacey Kohl), a blowzy lounge singer who barely makes it through the first number with her boss, country music has-been Roy Baker (James Caan, complete with long gray ponytail, talk-singing his way through several swinging numbers). He boots her out, and Frank scoops her up and takes her home — a move with fatal consequences for a growing number of people, as “Nowhere’s” comedy turns increasingly black. Thanks to a suspicious mishap, Helen ends up in the family garden, permanently. Frank’s tortured plans to open a nightclub with his new true love are short-lived, however, thanks to the arrival of his wife’s even harder twin sister, Wanda. An endless parade of cops, army buddies and would-be singing stars (including Andy Maton’s funny Baptist banker) also interrupt, and, in the garden, this year’s tomatoes are soon getting more than their fair share of fertilizer. As long as the pic sticks to its darker edge, the humor comes across as unpredictably quirky. But when helmer Jason Bloom lets the frenetic pace slip, it’s clear that the characters aren’t invested with enough humanity to inspire sympathy. If the guitar tunes sung and strummed by Stern had a little more depth, we might share his whacked-out vision, but Frank’s secret career is treated as a desperate joke, and that dilutes the emotional element. Fortunately, real poignancy is added by the very appealing Stringfield, as Marguerite, an overlooked barmaid who supports his fantasies — and, as it turns out, has a few of her own, as seen when she picks up a guitar and (through excellent dubbing) croons out a Dolly Parton number. Rough-hewn pic is appropriately scrubby looking, with Alberta subbing for big sky Kansas locations. Music is well-produced and placed, with several good onstage set pieces. Here-comes-everybody climax should have been hysterical but ends up deflating the adventure slightly, leading to hasty feel-good finish. Production design has many witty touches, including some garishly photogenic signage.