Morgan J. Freeman, the toast of 1997’s Sundance Film Festival with “Hurricane Streets,” fails to dodge the sophomore curse. His return bout, “Desert Blue,” boasts a veritable Who’s Who of Hot New Talent (Brendan Sexton III, Christina Ricci, Casey Affleck) in a cloying, mechanically plotted comedy about Mojave water rights, arson, a hazardous waste spill and the world’s largest ice cream cone. Can you say, “Northern Exposure” for the Nickelodeon set? Director’s reputation and cast will mean some curiosity, but box office should dry up quickly once word gets out this ain’t no Gen-X “Last Picture Show.”
The nowhere setting is Baxter Beach, Calif., a desert town with an abandoned water slide and a kitschy statue of a giant pink ice cream cone. It’s all supposed to represent dreams that refuse to melt in the glare of bogus values.
Freeman lays on the forced metaphors so heavily one initially wonders if he’s after a sendup of “Bagdad Cafe” and other edge-of-civilization indies. All such hopes fade as he presents a parade of small-town types, including the handsome jock Pete (Affleck), the anarchist-in-training Ely (Ricci), the geeky outsider Sandy (Sara Gilbert), the rich-bitch starlet Skye (Kate Hudson), the chubby tag-along (Ethan Suplee) and the nice-guy dreamer.
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The latter, played winningly by Sexton (“Hurricane Streets,” “Welcome to the Dollhouse”), is the anything-but-moody Blue of the title. Blue’s goal is to avenge the memory of his father, whose dream of diverting water to town was thwarted by the Empire Cola Co., which now placates locals with all the free off-brand pop they can consume. Dad’s pet project, the water slide, was put on hold when he died mysteriously in a hotel fire. Blue is determined to finish the attraction.
Nascent romance and an Empire Cola truck spill that brings out the usual assortment of humorless FBI and EPA agents momentarily deflect Blue from his plan. Ho-hum subplots abound, including Pete’s determination to defend his all-terrain-vehicle-champ title and Ely’s noisy cries for attention via mail-order pipe bombs.
TV star Skye is passing through with her pop-culture-prof dad (an affable John Heard). They’re forced to stay put, thanks to the FBI quarantine and roadblock, and, during the stopover, Skye evolves from pain in the Calvin Kleins to one of the gang, joining in all sorts of clever desert diversions, like orange baseball and potato-cannon skirmishes.
Meanwhile, the prof shares ’60s memories with Blue’s UFO-fixated mom, played by Lucinda Jenney.
Michael Ironside once again draws the zealot FBI agent, a role he’s been playing with only slight variations since David Cronenberg’s “Scanners.” Aunjanue Ellis appears behind standard-issue Foster Grants as a more reasonable EPA agent.
Freeman’s obvious empathy for fringe survivors doesn’t serve him this time around. Slacker humor and campfire philosophizing work only when they feel effortless and fresh. Here, despite wise underplaying by Sexton and Ricci, they feel as artificial as a roadside tourist monstrosity.