“Unbeatable Harold” is strikingly anachronistic. Though mostly filmed in 2004 and adapted from a 1988 play, its style and spirit are older still — it easily could have anchored “Every Which Way But Loose” on a late-’70s double bill. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Unfashionable, irony-free and only sporadically funny, Ari Palitz’s comedy nonetheless relies on a strong cast and an underlying sweetness to push its earnest charms to the forefront, and it should see very modest yet respectable turnout on a limited, Dixie-centric run beginning June 12.
Extravagantly sideburned Gordon Michaels stars as the titular hero, a Fat Elvis-fetishizing, pink Cadillac-driving assistant manager at a third-rate Reno steakhouse. Absurdly hapless with women and good-natured to a degree suggesting cognitive impairment — fittingly, he dreams of becoming a TV weatherman — Harold’s meager existence is threatened when his restaurant boss (Henry Winkler) demands he find a permanent solution to the eatery’s revolving-door waitress position, or else.
Enter a stranded showgirl (Nicole DeHuff) on the run from her loutish rock-star boyfriend (Dylan McDermott). Harold recruits her to work in the restaurant while pursuing a predictably mishap-laden courtship, an arrangement complicated by both her poor waitressing skills and her ex’s arrival in town to win her back.
Adapted and significantly expanded by Michaels from Randy Noojin’s single-act two-hander, “Harold” is nearly derailed early on by an almost Chekhovian adherence to narrative economy: Every object upon which Harold supports his weight will inevitably give way, and any scene that begins with a shot of an irritable duck will surely end with that duck’s beak clamped to Harold’s crotch. But just when the film threatens to devolve into a series of telegraphed pratfalls, it takes a strangely successful detour toward poignancy, including a non-pandering invocation of religious faith. By the end, the formerly cardboard protagonists have made a wholly unexpected expansion into the third dimension.
Primary credit for sustaining the pic’s thin premise goes to the two leads, especially DeHuff, a promising comedic actress who died shortly after filming. McDermott clearly has the most fun as a cartoonish Vince Neil stand-in, while Gladys Knight and Michelle Phillips, playing waitresses, are rendered nearly invisible throughout save for a bizarre, dreamlike musical interlude that seems included solely to rectify that situation.
Tech contributions are quite solid for what was presumably a miniscule budget.