With talk of the legalization of marijuana a subject of current debate, “Homegrown” would appear a natural film subject. However, the film steers clear of overt politics, opting for a droll tone that puts the yarn of illegal growing and selling into the leagues of muted outlawism that characterized such vintage fare as “Beat the Devil” and “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” The difficulty with this approach is that it needs to hit a precise tone that’s often a result of luck rather than design. In this instance, the shaggy dog tale renders more tin than tune and will result in tepid theatrical prospects (it opens a Seattle test engagement Friday). Pic doesn’t have much in the way of a commercial harvest with its best potential in satellite and pay TV, where its meanderings will be less obvious or intrusive.
Somewhere in the hinterlands of Northern California, there’s a community of marijuana sharecroppers co-existing with local authorities and handsomely propping up the area’s economy. Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Carter (Hank Azaria) are old hands at the planting and nurturing of cannabis. They’re currently tending to the green for San Francisco entrepreneur Malcolm Stockman (John Lithgow). But the damnedest thing occurs when the boss comes for a visit. He no sooner steps out from a helicopter when the pilot pulls a gun and discharges its contents point blank into Malcolm’s chest. The craft ascends, leaving the duo and apprentice Harlan (Ryan Phil-lippe) speechless and virtually inert.
The trio of dim bulbs instinctively know they should run. They also retain enough of a mercantile sensibility to grab sufficient crop to reimburse themselves for services now beyond Malcolm’s check-paying capacities. The boys flee to the nearby town and hook up with their go-between, Lucy (Kelly Lynch). They concoct some barely credible tale that’s supposed to explain Malcolm’s absence and the pressing need to sell off a piece of the crop for cash flow purposes. It effectively plants the seeds of suspicion.
The script credited to Nicholas Kazan and director Stephen Gyllenhaal is antic and frantic. It also relies on a stoned logic not even the performers seem able to comprehend. At one moment, Jack is thick as a brick and in the next scene, he’s juggling phones and portfolios and closing seven-figure business deals.
“Homegrown” is serious, funny, sinister, sexy, silly and a lot more. But it isn’t particularly good in any one of those departments. Ultimately, one would have to tag it a comedy, though it employs an element of suspense that is disquieting rather than complimentary to the hijinx. As to the “why?” and “who?” in the murder of Malcolm, the perfunctory disclosure offers neither bite nor delight.
The picture is in desperate need of a rogue’s gallery cast with a wry, slightly objective attitude. Only Thornton and (the all-too-briefly-seen) Lithgow deliver the sort of edgy, comic tone required. The rest of the ensemble struggle, seemingly unsupported by direction or precision from the script.
Gyllenhaal provides a suitably hang loose, bucolic atmosphere for his tale, adopting a lush, verdant look for “Homegrown.” Unfortunately, his latter-day hippies and the movie go up in smoke in the befogged environment of the story.