An engaging look at a mangy day in the lives of two junkies trying to kick, “Gridlock’d” would have been a good mid-level B.O. performer even without the interest surrounding it, due to the recent death of co-star Tupac Shakur. As it is, curiosity among both black and white auds to see the late rap bad boy in a sympathetic role should bump up this modest but punchy Gramercy release yet another notch in commercial potential.
Skewed to the comic and buddy-buddy aspects of this tale of bureaucratic frustration at the bottom of the urban barrel, actor Vondie Curtis Hall’s debut as a bigscreen writer-director showcases all his thesps to good advantage in scenes that favor character interaction far more than plot. It’s a shaggy-dog story, after a fashion, although one with a sense of urgency prompted by a life-or-death crisis served up in the opening scene.
New Year’s Eve presents as good an excuse to get high as anything, but Cookie (Thandie Newton) goes too far this evening and ODs. While her friends Stretch (Tim Roth), a crazy white guy, and Spoon (Shakur), a more levelheaded black man, await word of her fate at the hospital, pic mixes in flashbacks to describe relations among the threesome, who look to be an on-the-rise jazz trio.
Sobered by what’s happened to Cookie, Spoon gets reflective and, in what is bound to be the most hyped and cited passage in the picture, says to his buddy, “You ever feel like your luck’s running out? Lately I feel like my luck’s been running out.” Astonished at the idea of giving up junk, Stretch nevertheless goes along with the idea out of friendship, but not before they get high one last time.
Body of the film consists of the two young men’s increasingly frustrated and absurdist attempts to get into rehab. On the run from some gangsters and trying to steer clear of the cops, they embark on a wild goose chase to an assortment of depressing government agencies, only to be given the runaround, being told that they can’t enter rehab until they’re on Medicaid, but can’t get on Medicaid unless they’re on welfare, and so on. Outwardly comic playing of these scenes is underscored by a mixture of anger and sadness.
In its affection for actors as well as for the eccentric behavior of some of society’s scruffier characters, pic reminds at times of the work of John Cassavetes and Elaine May’s “Mikey and Nicky.” While the film is nowhere near as inspired as these predecessors, and lacks their raw improvisatory edge, Hall reveals a natural talent for behavioral nuance in glancing societal observations, so it will be interesting to watch if he continues pushing further in the direction of intimate character work grounded in the real world or gravitates toward more conventional Hollywood fare.
Acting is strong across the board. Roth has a field day bouncing off the walls as Stretch, and clearly established a fine rapport with Shakur, who, in his second-to-last film, displays a confidently relaxed screen presence and ready sense of humor. As the impulsive Cookie, Newton is highly charged and sensual, and gets to deliver a sultry jazz number backed by Roth’s character on keyboards and Shakur on bass. Latter briefly vocalizes on a tune used over the end credits. Cast is peppered by a vivid assortment of secondary characters, few of whom are on for more than a few moments.
By the time of the open-ended conclusion, by which Stretch and Spoon have had to resort to desperate measures to even hope to be noticed by society, there is the nagging feeling that the film has neither been quite as funny or as truly involving as it might have been. Direction could have profited by a looser, more freewheeling approach, one that did not contain the story in a nice little box. It’s not that the box is bad, just that it somehow gives the sense of keeping a lid on the full potential of the material rather than liberating it.
Tech contributions on this modestly budgeted effort are sharp, and soundtrack is bound to be a winner.