If the producers of “Mama’s Family” commissioned a script from Quentin Tarantino, he’d likely submit something very similar to “Rantoul and Die,” an edgy, grim new comedy from “Two and a Half Men” exec producer Mark Roberts. Sitcomish banter among Midwestern dolt stereotypes is layered with matter-of-fact profanity plus a ghoulish interest in bodily functions and physical brutality. Though impressively mounted, this script seems a couple of drafts short of primetime readiness.
On Roberts’ evidence not much happens in Rantoul, Ill. (pop. 12,918, just a straight shot up Highway 57 from Urbana), and the same inertia infects his profane, libidinous foursome. Rallis (Rich Hutchman), who has just attempted suicide because wife Debbie (Cynthia Ettinger) wants a divorce, must endure a chokehold and morality lecture from friend Gary (Paul Dillon), a grizzled blowhard with anger-management issues.
Following uncomfortable cascades of hectoring and blubbering from Gary and Rallis, respectively, Debbie rolls in from her job at the Dairy Queen for a vicious tirade against mentally handicapped customers. The big question at intermission becomes, which of these creeps most deserves to be killed off?
Surprisingly, Ettinger recovers from that bad taste introduction to engage our sympathy in a big act-two reversal after tragedy strikes Rallis (hard to reveal because it’s hard to believe). Ettinger conveys Debbie’s overwhelming guilt and grief with remarkable sensitivity, though in fairness she’d have to look good by comparison with Callie (Lisa Rothschiller), daffy manager of the DQ.
This certifiable nutjob drops by to share anecdotes about her 14 cats, staying long enough to describe a long-ago encounter with a masher in a monologue Ed Gein or Hannibal Lecter might envy.
To his credit, Roberts doesn’t treat his ne’er-do-wells with leering condescension, though he doesn’t admire them, either. Actually, it’s hard to be sure just what his attitude is since their allotment of bad habits seems arbitrary and even gratuitous.
Script is awfully light on texture; town life is generally topic A in Midwestern circles, but though we learn plenty about the DQ, little is said about other local activities or neighborhood gossip. And there’s a severe shortage of intended belly laughs. When the dialogue comes in the familiar sitcom structure of setup-setup-punchline-topper, but the gags get all their force from X-rated expletives, it’s hard not to assume Roberts is saving his best jokes for his day job.
No one is likely to be bored at “Rantoul and Die” — you’ll be too busy pulling your jaw up off the floor to doze — and its numerous outrages are played with gusto. Plus wandering attention will be pulled back by the scope and detail of David Harwell’s set, exactly the dimensions of a double-wide and decorated like a Museum of the Terminally Tasteless, right down to the explosion of refrigerator magnets.
But you can’t blame residents or natives of the “flyover states” for thinking that if this is the treatment they can expect from Hollywood, those on the coasts should just keep flying over.