Appropriately enough for a dramedy about a blocked novelist, "Crime Fiction" plays like a slapdash rough draft for a potentially more satisfying final product.

Appropriately enough for a dramedy about a blocked novelist, “Crime Fiction” plays like a slapdash rough draft for a potentially more satisfying final product. Scripter-star Jonathan Eliot has dreamed up an intriguing premise – an unsuccessful writer inadvertently causes his girlfriend’s death, then uses the tragedy as fodder for a best-selling roman a clef – but pic ultimately is undone by tonal inconsistencies, uneven performances, unsympathetic characters, and an overall air of cartoonish overstatement. Critical and commercial response to this misfire should be every bit as frosty as that received by its lead character’s first literary effort.

James Cooper (Eliot) is still smarting from the pans for his debut novel – and, worse, finds he cannot complete a second tome quickly enough to please his agent. Forced to work as a textbook proofreader for a Chicago publisher, he pines for his Manhattan-based girlfriend, Hilary (Amy Sloan), whose own debut novel has been warmly embraced by the New York literati.

When Hilary pays him a surprise visit late one night, James is greatly pleased. Alas, his joy is short-lived. So is Hilary: During a heated argument, she accidentally falls through an open window in James’ apartment.

Panic-stricken – and more than a little afraid that he’ll be accused of a jealousy-fueled crime of passion – James impulsively opts to bury the body in a remote field. But even before he washes the dirt from his hands, he begins to plot a novel about an author who kills his more successful girlfriend, pretends he has no idea how or why she disappeared – and, quite literally, gets away with murder. Think O.J. Simpson’s “If I Did It,” only with fewer bodies and no celeb ex-athlete.

With a little help from David Bashwiner’s mood-enhancing score, helmer Will Slocombe manages to generate some Hitchcockian tension while James disposes of the inconvenient corpse. But the rest of “Crime Fiction” is a lumpy commingling of broadly played farce and low-voltage suspense.

James’ novel is a success de scandale, attracting intense interest from tabloid reporters, sensation-seeking trendies, a deeply suspicious cop (Yasen Peyankov) – and Don Lee Boone (Christian Stolte), a robustly crude superstar writer of hardboiled fiction. (His first best seller: “Bullets By Night, Pussy for Breakfast.”) Boone aggressively ingratiates himself to James, and proposes a collaboration on “Crime Fiction 2.” But James is more interested – initially, at least – in developing a romance with a would-be actress (Katrina Lenk) he met near the scene of his crime.

Pic’s attempt to satirize media and public fixation on sordid scandals is as heavy-handed as its burlesque of hardboiled fiction and self-aggrandizing authors. Subtler humor and sharper dialogue would have helped all around. Production values are on par for small-budget indies of this sort.

Crime Fiction

Production

A Schrodinger Partners and Fire Escape Films presentation of a CFP production. Produced by Graham Ballou. Directed by Will Slocombe. Screenplay, Jonathan Eliot.

Crew

Camera (color), Kirsten Boyd Johnson; editor, Christopher Zuber; music, David Bashwiner; production designer, Yasmin Al-Naib; art director, Molika Ashford; costume designer, Marya Spont; sound, Drew Weir; assistant director, Ben Kolak. Reviewed on DVD, Houston. Associate producers: Kolak, Marc DeMoss, Jonathan Cowperthwait. (At Slamdance Film Festival: Feature Competition.) Running time: 82 MIN.

With

James Cooper - Jonathan Eliot Don Lee Boone - Christian Stolte Hilary - Amy Sloan Komissarzhevsky - Yasen Peyankov Lauren - Katrina Lenk.
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