Though its premise suggests something resembling “American History X” as directed by the Farrelly Brothers, Jesse Beget’s low-budget comedy “Cellmates,” in which a KKK leader is forced to share a jail cell with a friendly Mexican farmhand, is less offensive and far less interesting than its logline threatens. Boasting few laughs and a genially superficial approach that prohibits it from even grazing the potent issues that linger right beneath its surface, the pic looks destined for marginal VOD biz.
“Cellmates” toplines Tom Sizemore as Leroy, a fast-rising Texas white-supremacist leader who, by the late ’70s (and the end of the film’s prologue), has been busted for some minor felonies. (It’s typical of the film’s boldness that even its Klan-leader characters aren’t allowed to commit serious crimes or utter actual racial epithets.) Leroy lands in a work facility manned by a spuds-mad potato-farmer warden (Stacy Keach) who delivers recurring Bubba-esque odes to the glory of tubers at random points throughout the film.
After his fellow Klansman cellmate (Kevin Farley) nearly chokes to death on mashed potatoes, Leroy is paired with Emilio (Hector Jimenez), a talkative farm worker from south of the border, jailed in an attempt to unionize his compatriots. Taken on its own, Jimenez’s perf could easily be considered offensive — he’s a truly dim bulb, prone to malapropisms and exaggerated English mangling — but taken alongside Sizemore’s sweaty, bug-eyed rage, it’s all part and parcel with the film’s flailing cartoonishness.
Expectedly, Leroy is hostile to his new roommate at first. (The film’s tonal command is such that scenes of Leroy bashing Emilio’s head into the cement walls are jarringly played for breezy comedy.) But when a comely Mexican maintenance worker (Olga Segura) who cleans the warden’s office happens to catch Leroy’s eye, he recruits Emilio to translate his correspondence with her.
Going all in on the romance between the two, the film makes its biggest narrative slip-up. Ignoring for a second the improbability of a beautiful young woman falling wordlessly in love at first sight with a puffy, incarcerated rage-monster, “Cellmate” never offers a reason why this hateful thug should be worthy of love, and his transformation into a more tolerant, reasonable man comes about only though narrative necessity.
Director Baget clearly strives to replicate the ersatz Dixie flavors of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” right down to the vintage ’30s music in a film set in the 1970s, but nailing the Coen brothers’ precisely calibrated style is far harder than it looks. Still, some of the below-the-line contributions nicely atone for the budgetary limitations, and the film never looks amateurish.