The minimalist, seriocomic “The Happy Poet” stars writer-director-editor Paul Gordon as a diffident slacker who, with assistance from beer-drinking buddies, unexpected helpmates and stray scroungers, tests his entrepreneurial skills as the operator of an improbable all-organic hot dog cart. This Austin-grown indie, typically concerning disaffected, college-educated, serially underemployed twentysomething males, both subscribes to and somewhat departs from the bare-bones improvisational formula established by the mumblecore movement, sometimes sacrificing ambiguity for the sake of broader, telegraphed, one-note laughs. Zero-budgeter, which opened Sept. 17 at Gotham’s ReRun Gastropub Theater, appears unlikely breakout material.
Establishing the understated, jokey tone from scene one, deadpan Bill (Gordon) awkwardly tenders his proposal for financial aid to underwrite a health-food concession stand powered by solar energy (orders will be served on biodegradable plates made of corn-based plastics). As Bill, in closeup, uncertainly delivers his unorthodox pitch, director Gordon lets the forced absurdisms pile sky-high by intercutting medium shots of the desk-bound bank officer (Ricardo Lerma), barely containing his skepticism.
But despite a dismal credit rating and academic qualifications that begin and end with a master’s degree in poetry, Bill still secures a paltry $750 business loan. Buying a second-hand wiener cart on the installment plan, staking out a prime spot in a public park, and surprised when dissatisfied patrons expect to purchase hot dogs like the one painted on his stand, Bill concludes his first day mightily discouraged. His one ray of hope is freeloader Curtis (a convincingly spacey Chris Doubek), who waxes ecstatic over Bill’s health-conscious concoctions.
Soon, Bill’s regular menu of basil pesto spinach sandwiches, hummus pitas and (the favorite!) “eggless egg salad” gains local fame, thanks to the catchy branding of the enterprise as “The Happy Poet” by hanger-on Curtis and faithful customer Agnes (Liz Fisher), as well as the word-spreading efforts of scooter-driving Donnie (co-producer Jonny Mars). Bill meets Donnie at one of those mumblecore-affiliated social gatherings featuring flatly photographed roomfuls of alienated people struggling to converse; half of Bill’s dialogue consisting of “wells,” “y’knows,” “uhs,” “ums” and “ers.”
Donnie ultimately betrays his friend, but his sexual braggadocio (“Dudes pound puss!”) and natural assertiveness at least allow the chronically non-aggressive Bill to get to first base with the interested Agnes, who listens to Bill haltingly recite his epic poem “Chasm” in appalled silence. But such amusing variations on Bill’s near-autism are few and far between, and the pic’s surprise ending reps a one-note twist on a one-note premise.