An endearing performance by James LeGros is the only spot-on factor in “Drop Back Ten,” a shaggy-dog comedy-drama which otherwise plays so low-key it scarcely registers. Superficial overlaps with writer-director Stacy Cochran’s previous features — the underrated screwball exercise “My New Gun” and misfired Winona Ryder vehicle “Boys” — only underline this poky pic’s lack of energy, style and credibility. Early quirky humor provides a minor sales point, but hapless treatment of domestic violence pretty much cancels out any good will. Tube and tape engagements will be wan.
LeGros, underutilized since a run of dopey-but-decent sidekick roles (“Drugstore Cowboy,” “Gun Crazy”) and ensembler showcases (“Living in Oblivion’s” memorable Brad Pitt parody) plays another amiable loser here. His Pete Barnes has just lost a daily newspaper job through sheer inertia, his expose tome on NFL players won the enthusiastic interest of several litigation attorneys, and g.f. Peggy (Jodie Markell) is married, bored and fed up with him.
Less desperate than he should be, given the circumstances, Pete wins a magazine assignment from loyal editor Tom (Josh Lucas, radiating more empathy than can be believed). The catch: It’s a tabloidy feature on football-related “reincarnation.” Athletic, allegedly 19-year-old Spanks Voley (Desmond Harrington) is playing the lead in a low-budget gridiron pic being shot around Wilmington, N.C.; his past is cloudy, his future bright. But a face-rearranging blow from a mysterious assailant gets him dumped from the shoot. Pete tries to suss out Spanks’ real story — which involves a highly aggrieved ex-wife (Amber Valletta as Mindy) and doleful young daughter, plus weasely changes of name, age and career. It’s clear Mindy is looking for some payback. She starts with that nose dislocation.
Though scene rhythms are off from the start, there’s an amusingly chaotic tone to the treatment Pete gets from the wary movie crew — especially high-strung producer Wally (Tate Donovan), whose frantic leash-yanking provokes the journalist’s blase disbelief.
But the colorful film-within-film characters vanish all too soon. After a dull stretch in which Pete plays intermediary between two angry, estranged ex-spouses, he returns home to file his story. Inexplicably, he can’t get withdrawn Mindy out of his mind, despite scant time spent together and even less encouragement on her part. In an ill-judged sequence, he returns to plead his case with her — belligerently enough to terrify Mindy’s once-abused, still-skittish offspring. Meanwhile, Spanks finds himself exposed in print as a wife-beater and fraud. There are vague suggestions that … um, he’d just never thought of it that way before, and will try to be good from now on.
Those domestic violence issues are so poorly supported, and the relationships that survive them so sloppily drawn, that “Drop Back Ten” never has a chance at emotional impact. Cochran likes fuzzy protags a bit stumped by everyone around them — e.g., Diane Lane in “My New Gun,” Lukas Haas in “Boys.” But this time the human landscape is so cipher-like we can’t identify with Pete’s choices.
Still, watching LeGros muddle through is the best pic has to offer. Rather doughy-looking and boyish in an immature way, he lends his lines a one-beat-behind unpredictability that’s both earnest and droll. That’s fortunate, since hackneyed dialogue (“Don’t do this — please!”) abounds. Model-turned-actress Valletta is a weak foil; her Uma Thurmanesque looks don’t salvage a petulant, flat interp. Fellow newcomer Harrington (“The Messenger”) has understandable trouble connecting the dots in Spanks’ character, despite some bright moments. Other perfs are often wry, but at the mercy of sketchy scenario.
Mediocre lensing and Pat Irwin’s bland soft-rock score underline pic’s half-hearted air. Other tech contribs are adequate.