If you can buy a scene in which a character played by Natasha Richardson goes all warm and gooey at the prospect of seeing Tony Orlando perform live, then you might like "Waking Up in Reno," a hillbilly romantic comedy in which the hillbillies show up but the romance and comedy never do.

If you can buy a scene in which a character played by Natasha Richardson goes all warm and gooey at the prospect of seeing Tony Orlando perform live, then you might like “Waking Up in Reno,” a hillbilly romantic comedy in which the hillbillies show up but the romance and comedy never do. A real what-were-they-thinking effort, this forlorn Miramax trifle with an unaccountably classy cast has long been in a holding pattern awaiting an opening date, and while it could play for months in Branson, Mo., it will slip right in and out of theatrical release everywhere else.

Toplined Billy Bob Thornton reportedly came up with the idea for this redneck “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” years ago and later hired his “Hearts Afire” TV writers Brett Briscoe and Mark Fauser to flesh it out. Lowbrow odyssey about a foursome whose destination is a Nevada monster-truck jam has an inescapably tube-like sensibility, one reflected when one of the characters remarks at the end that, “I saw these two couples on ‘The Jerry Springer Show’ that screwed up a helluva lot worse than we did.”

What leads to this four-way wreck is a little hanky-panky between gaudy car dealer Lonnie Earl Dodd (Thornton) and Candy Kirkendall (Charlize Theron), wife of his best friend Roy (Patrick Swayze). Lonnie’s marriage to Darlene (Richardson) has lost all its juice, but it’s never explained why Candy would nip off for some quickies with Lonnie when she seems to love her hubby so much.

In any event, foursome piles into a big Chevy truck for the road trip from Little Rock to Reno, with pit stops along the way for Roy and Candy to give the back seat a workout (they do it whenever she’s ovulating in hopes of a kid) and for Lonnie to win a dubious prize for downing a 72-ounce steak in Amarillo. Given the complete lack of urgency and inspiration in the material, filmmakers have tried to give their work a semblance of life by all manner of desperate means –animated maps, jumpy editing, jokey narration and slumber-arresting musical cues, to little avail.

Although up until now the four have shared the same motel bedrooms and beds, presumably for economy reasons, once they reach Reno they indulge in an enormous two-bedroom luxury suite. Remainder of the action is largely confined to this one set, as the couples, with the infidelity secret blown and other complications introduced, yell, scream, fight, fling accusations, stomp out and miraculously reconcile in a manner that suggests that perhaps married folk should go through cheating traumas every so often in order to enliven their relationships.

One of the complications involves a “Puerto Rican skank” hooker who picks up Roy in a cheap hotel bar and is played by none other than Thornton’s “All the Pretty Horses” leading lady Penelope Cruz. It’s an odd bit of slumming, and one of a piece with the incongruous casting of the women in the two major roles. Both Richardson and Theron are OK, but they’re not exactly the first actresses you’d think of to play yokels whose idea of a good time is watching the truck orgy’s giant, fire-breathing Robosaurus consume the vehicle they drove out in.

Thornton is in low gear here, underplaying in apparent hopes of counterbalancing the hyperactive women. Against-type casting of Swayze as a vulnerable, ever-trusting softy succeeds nicely, as his character is the only one who communicates anything resembling real feeling.

Direction by Jordan Brady (“Dill Scallion”) is unrelievedly klutzy, evincing neither a sense of style nor a p.o.v. on the dense characters at hand. Pic’s unattractive look can be only partly rationalized by the banality of most of the settings.

Waking Up In Reno

Production

A Miramax Films release of a Ben Myron/Crossfire Sound & Pictures production. Produced by Myron, Robert Salerno, Dwight Yoakam. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Jonathan Gordon, Jeremy Kramer. Co-producer, Bruce Heller. Directed by Jonathan Brady. Screenplay, Brent Briscoe, Mark Fauser.

Crew

Camera (CFI color, Deluxe prints), William A. Fraker; editor, Lisa Zeno Churgin; music, Marty Stuart; music supervisors, Michelle Kuznetsky, Mary Ramos; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; art director, John Demeo; set decorator, Jay Hart; costume designer, Doug Hall; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Paul Ledford; supervising sound editors, Terry Rodman, Brian T. Best; assistant director, Jim Hensz; second unit director/camera, Jonathan Brown; casting, Emily Schweber. Reviewed at Miramax screening room, L.A., Oct. 22, 2002. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Lonnie Earl Dodd - Billy Bob Thornton Candy Kirkendall - Charlize Theron Darlene Dodd - Natasha Richardson Roy Kirkendall - Patrick Swayze Doc Tuley - Holmes Osborne Fred Bush - Chelcie Ross Brenda (Spanish Woman) - Penelope Cruz As Himself - Tony Orlando

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