George Hickenlooper once made a fine documentary about Peter Bogdanovich, and “Dogtown,” with its collection of small-town losers, lost dreams and even a crumbling old theater marquee, clearly aims to be his “Last Picture Show.” The tribute pales by comparison to its model, and while a largely excellent cast keeps viewer interest from flagging, this occasionally amusing low-key melodrama has too soft a center to suggest much of a theatrical future.
The last film to play the movie house in “The Last Picture Show” was “Red River,” while the final attraction at the theater in “Dogtown” was “Sixteen Candles,” and it’s not far off to suggest that there is roughly an equal distance in quality between both sets of films. John Hughes’ teenpic came out in 1984, high school graduation year for the key characters here, none of whom have done a thing worth talking about since then.
Unique among them is Philip Van Horn (Trevor St. John), a good-looking lad who at least got out of the stifling environs of Cuba, Mo., to try for a career as a Hollywood actor. But after more than a decade, his long-hoped-for break still hasn’t materialized, so he heads back home for a visit.
Taking a cue from Gogol’s “The Inspector General,” the film has Philip being received as something close to a conquering hero, a celebrity in his own right who has actually met Molly Ringwald and Jeff Bridges. Feeling a fraud from the outset, Philip never quite manages to make clear that he’s never been anything more than an extra, and he soon begins to see the advantage of retaining his aura of renown long enough to impress the girl he never got in high school, Dorothy (Mary Stuart Masterson).
By far the most interesting character in the film, something of an imaginative projection of Cybill Shepherd’s role in “Picture Show,” Dorothy was the lead cheerleader pursued by all the jocks and voted most beautiful in her class. Now, however, she’s a washed-out, sometimes suicidal alcoholic who still lives with her younger sister and abusive father and dates, for lack of anyone else, the ferocious bully Ezra (Jon Favreau), who was once a star basketball player and is now a pathetic wastrel who hates blacks for taking away “his game,” drives a tow truck and hangs with his equally simian buddy Curtis (Rory Cochrane), who works scraping road kill off the highway.
One look at Philip’s home life is enough to clarify why he left in the first place. Mom (Karen Black) is a hovering, terminally stupid bore who lives with a small-time rock-‘n’-roller and his retarded daughter. The local cop, Ted (John Livingston), keeps trying to impress the illustrious visitor with his Shakespearean repertoire, while the only man anyone in town looks up to, Blessed William, is a World War II vet with hooks for hands who sits most of the day on a bench smoking cigars (this obvious stand-in for Ben Johnson’s Sam the Lion in “Picture Show” is notable for being played by the 82-year-old Harold Russell, double Oscar winner in 1946 for “The Best Years of Our Lives”).
Much of the drama stems from the menace generated by the nasty, foul-mouthed Ezra, who is in trouble with some local drug dealers and rightly suspects that Dorothy’s growing disaffection has something to do with Philip. Favreau, who sprang to prominence in “Swingers,” forcefully conveys the macho swagger that scarcely disguises his character’s acute inferiority complex, and while his scenes with the always lively Cochrane are somewhat discomfiting because of these two losers’ outrageously overt racism, their vitality pumps up the film whenever they are onscreen.
Increasingly, the film swings toward Masterson’s Dorothy, who retains some of her high school cool but must finally confront, in her reawakening by Philip, her desolate and virtually hopeless life. Masterson injects the one note of genuine feeling into a film whose portrait of small-town denizens perilously comes to resemble a freak show, one in which the characters are almost grotesque in their failure, rather than just sad. The motives stimulating Hickenlooper’s study of wasted lives seem genuine enough, but he pushes everything too far into caricature and, near the end, needless melodrama.
The other major problem is the central character of Philip, who is far too opaque and ineffectual to generate any viewer interest at all. Newcomer St. John has a standard-issue handsomeness without any of the character or bitterness that might plausibly have come with 13 years of nonstop rejection, but he’s also been given very little to play. Philip never has anything interesting to say, and is as reluctant to offer a view on any subject as he is to reveal the truth about his identity and life. Time and experience seem not to have touched him, which makes him a drag.
Pic does mark a step up for Hickenlooper from his previous feature, “The Low Life,” although his fictional work thus far remains far short of his accomplishments in docus, which also include “Hearts of Darkness.” Film was shot in the outlying L.A. city of Torrance, and tech credits are OK.