Joel Surnow, co-creator of “24,” steps away from guiding Jack Bauer in saving the country to examine one tiny corner of it in “Small Time,” his aptly named bigscreen directorial debut, featuring a fine cast that’s logged plenty time on the TV beat. A warm-hearted coming-of-age family drama grafted onto a comic buddy pic, the film focuses on a used-car dealer whose son joins him on the lot after graduating from high school, to the dismay of the ex-wife he still has feelings for. Hamstrung narratively by third-act longueurs and limited theatrically by a bizarre R rating that shuts out its natural family audience, the movie will find customers on the smallscreen, where Starz-owned distributor Anchor Bay figures to have a ready customer.
A pre-credits sequence establishes Al Klein (Christopher Meloni, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”) as a caring father, while defining the relationship between Al and business partner Ash Martini (Dean Norris, “Breaking Bad,” “Under the Dome”), the co-owners of Diamond Motors, as they deftly teach a would-be teenage car thief a lesson in the art of the sale.
Arriving late to the graduation of Al’s son Freddy (Devon Bostick, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”), the two men get there in time for Ash to trade insults with Chick (Xander Berkeley), the venture capitalist who’s now married to Al’s ex, Barbara (Bridget Moynahan), and to ground the movie in its common-man-vs.-the-1% motif. A few scenes later, Al arrives home to find Freddy there, with a singular request: He’d rather not go to college; instead he wants to work with Dad selling cars.
It’s easy to understand why. The scenes at Diamond Motors are the best in the film, with sharp byplay between the two partners, and creative sales strategies that would do a con artist proud. (Who would have thought a hearing aid could be such an effective dealmaking tool?) There’s also an off-kilter staff that includes an erratic mechanic (Amaury Nolasco) and a ditzy Irish office manager (Ashley Jensen).
At first, Freddy’s inexperience on the lot is laughable, but he quickly catches on, and soon he’s trolling the local pickup bar after work with Ash and offering his dad advice on how to grow the biz. When he starts to put into practice the people-devaluing lessons he’s learned from Al and Ash’s poker buddies (Gregory Itzin, Ken Davitian and Kevin Nealon), Al discovers he has a tough choice to make.
The pic is a passion project for Surnow, who wrote the original draft with a friend, Randall Wallace, in 1976 after graduating UCLA film school, a few months before Wallace died. The film credits the characters of Klein and Martini as having been created by both men, and they’re by far the strongest here. The narrative becomes more tenuous the deeper it strays into drama: The equanimity of the relationship between Al and Barbara strains credulity (you almost expect Meloni to sprout a halo at times), and Al’s summary dismissiveness of Freddy’s worthy expansion plans for the car dealership is a head-scratcher. Al’s explanation: “I don’t want to get greedy.”
Meloni is at his naturalistic best playing Al, hitting notes that come closest to his current role in Fox’s “Surviving Jack.” Norris frequently steals the show as the wisecracking Ash, and Bostick holds his own among an ensemble of seasoned pros. Moynahan gets the most out of the material she’s given.
Location-wise, a movie that’s not shot in the place it represents has likely never played closer to the truth, with Granada Hills subbing for Covina. Smallscreen-scaled production values are appropriate. The soundtrack, which leans on ’60 and ’70 R&B, as well as jazz and Latin songs of the era, is well considered.