A worthy entry in the new strain of dark comedies that confound sexual and corporate power plays ("In the Company of Men," "Secretary" "Roger Dodger"), "100 Mile Rule" provides a crash course in negotiation to a trio of Detroit salesmen who strive to extricate themselves from a web of blackmail and betrayal.

A worthy entry in the new strain of dark comedies that confound sexual and corporate power plays (“In the Company of Men,” “Secretary” “Roger Dodger”), “100 Mile Rule” provides a crash course in negotiation to a trio of Detroit salesmen who strive to extricate themselves from a web of blackmail and betrayal. Solid script by Drew Pillsbury, well-paced direction by Brent Huff and strong thesping by the likes of Michael McKean and Maria Bello (winner of a Star on the Horizon award at Fort Lauderdale fest) assures “Rule” a future on cable and a fair shot at indie distribution.

Against a backdrop of anonymous cocktail lounges, Marriott hotel rooms and a snooze-inducing motivational speaker in L.A., business-tripping out-of-towners stave off boredom with rip-off escort services, porn, visits to strip joints and nightcap-inspired bar talk. But committed family man Bobby (Jake Weber) has no truck with the “100 Mile Rule” as expounded by his pompadour-coifed fellow traveler Jerry (David Thornton): If you’re more than 100 miles from home, you’re free to indulge your lust guilt-free.

Of course Jerry, embodied by Thornton with a lovely comic blend of braggadocio and obtuseness, may not be the most sterling proponent of the rule, since all his pathetic drunken pickup lines meet with indifference or the finger.

Bobby stalwartly resists when a beautiful blond actress/cocktail waitress Monica (Maria Bello) first propositions him in the midst of one of his tension-relieving sunset jogs along an oceanside road. He only succumbs when she appeals to his nice guy empathy and protectiveness. He feels considerably less protective or empathetic, though, when Monica calls and blackmails him with a VHS of their intimate encounter to be posted to his beloved wife if he doesn’t pay up.

Helmer Huff exercises good control of comic tone, the variegated levels of humor firmly anchored in personality. Thus the ongoing two week sales seminar supplies a running ironic commentary on the characters’ private affairs, so that a talk on “buyers’ remorse” occurs the morning after Bobby’s night with Monica.

As it turns out, the entire trap was engineered by Jerry, who lost a lucrative Chrysler account to Bobby. But what goes around comes around and Monica cuts Jerry out of the deal and her strapping bartender boyfriend in.

Desperate, Bobby and Jerry solicit the aid of senior manager Howard (McKean) whose expertise in negotiations is certified by his having emerged from three divorces owing no alimony. Howard, world-weary 36-year sales veteran, now reluctantly devotes himself to damage control, McKean’s face translating the whole Willie Loman world into tired, tenacious flesh. Monica proves too wily to fall for salesmen’s first tactic, tricking her into a taped confession, so they switch to plan B: abducting Monica’s bartender boyfriend to have something to barter.

Pic is extremely deft at capturing the impromptu nature of back-and-forth negotiations between the parties. At the same time, pic traces a moment of metamorphosis — the birth of a supremely confident con-woman and infidelity-avenging goddess. Bello’s well-performed Monica owes a lot to Tuesday Weld, though she traverses the path of a typical Weld character in reverse, from bitter disillusionment to irrepressible, mischievous zeal.

Tech credits are pro, lensing, production design and score all adding to the jazzy impersonal hotel feel.

100 Mile Rule

Production

A Road Rules Prods. presentation of a Honeydo production. Produced by John Nelson, Eric Gustavson. Executive producers, Wendi Lampassi, Isabelle Schenkel. Directed by Brent Huff. Screenplay by Drew Pillsbury.

Crew

Camera (color), Giovanni Lampassi; editor, Richard Fields; music supervisor, Tor Hyams; production designer, Richard Toyon; costume designer, Jayme Bohn; sound, Walter Hoylman; supervising sound editor, Mark Innocenti; casting, Matt Barry. Reviewed at Fort Lauderdale Film Festival (American Independents), Nov. 7, 2002. (Also in Hollywood Film Festival.) Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Bobby - Jake Weber Monica - Maria Bello Jerry - David Thornton Howard - Michael McKean
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