Although it appears to be a labor of love for everyone involved, “Deep in the Heart (of Texas)” is too lightweight to be anything more than a sporadically amusing diversion. Currently in regional release in Dallas and Houston, pic will be hard-pressed to attract ticket buyers beyond the Lone Star state. Global TV audiences may be more receptive, especially in markets where anything Texan has the cachet of exotic novelty.
Director Stephen Purvis, a Texas-born documentary filmmaker, makes his feature debut with a leisurely paced comedy-drama about various eccentrics in and around Austin. The script, which Purvis co-wrote with Jesse Sublett and Tom Huckabee, is loosely based on “In the West,” a collection of monologues written and performed by an ensemble cast of Texas actors. But instead of simply recycling thematerial as a photographed stage play, Purvis has gone back to his nonfiction roots to place the monologues in a new context.
“Deep in the Heart” introduces two British documentarians, played by Kenneth Cranham (“The Boxer”) and Amanda Root (“Persuasion”), as bemused observers of the Austin scene. On assignment for British television, the filmmaking couple finds their relationship is strained, but ultimately strengthened, while they gather interviews with the aggressively colorful locals.
Purvis earns points for imaginatively restructuring the monologues and for casting two fine actors as the documentarians. A mild in-joke: Cranham’s character is named Robert Flaherty, after the director of “Nanook of the North.”
Trouble is, Purvis allows the relationship between Robert and Kate (Root) to dominate “Deep in the Heart” to the point of upsetting the pic’s balance between the observers and the observed. Robert is in the midst of a mid-life crisis, and his younger wife yearns for the days when he was more of idealist than a voyeur.
Unfortunately, most of this is merely announced; it is not sufficiently dramatized. The filmmakers squabble, break up and ultimately reunite, but the characters are so thinly written that it’s up to the actors to generate interest in their vicissitudes.
Members of the original cast of “In the West” appear throughout the pic as Austin locals who spin on-camera stories for the documentarians. Of these, the stand-outs include Lou Perryman as a deer hunter who’s more fond of shooting pictures, Tim Mateer as a mentally-challenged “wild child,” and C.K. McFarland as a woman who’s not at all sorry that her husband and her son died in a oil rig explosion. Traditionally Texas-favored cliches figure more prominently in Marco Perella’s brief turns as a guard-dog salesman and a gung-ho high school football coach.
Production values are on a par with other small-budget indie efforts by regional filmmakers. Pic’s major selling point is the eclectic array of Texas musicians — including Willie Nelson, Marcia Ball and Jimmie Vaughan — on its soundtrack. Lyle Lovett’s “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)” is a dead-solid choice to underscore the closing credits.