It sounds like the story of Los Angeles, but “Just Add Water” operates on far less familiar terrain, namely the trailer park of Hart Bochner’s mind. The actor-cum-helmer’s very dark comedy is set in a landscape as parched for human kindness as it is for H2O, and burdened with more symbolism than a Joseph Campbell TV special. Profound weirdness could counter the benefits of a name cast for this specialty item, which launches a single-screen Los Angeles run March 28.
With a clear eye for white-trash detail but a willingness to sacrifice character for quick laughs, Bochner weaves a yarn about Ray (Dylan Walsh), the nicest guy imaginable — which is why he doesn’t quite make sense. How did Ray become Ray? He works as a parking-lot attendant, his quavering wife Charlene (Penny Balfour) is a raging agoraphobic (who serves stalactites from her freezer for dessert), and his son is played by Jonah Hill. Something has to explain this. But other than the fact that the water has left the tiny town of Trona and taken most of the community’s lifeblood with it, Ray is an enigma.
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Local meth dealer Dirk (Will Rothhaar) has bought up the place, charges rent, cuts off all the electricity if a tenant pays late (no one among the quasi-mutant population looks like they can pay anyway) and charges impromptu tolls at the intersections of the tract’s all-but-empty streets. To say “Just Add Water” encourages urban living is to put it mildly.
Bochner is far too interested in creating an absurdist milieu than in doing what he does really well, which is construct touching moments between adults — or near-adults. When Ray takes Eddie (Hill) to a place where he can lose his virginity, the exchange between the teary boy and his sympathetic, uh, subcontractor (Anika Noni Rose) is right on pitch. When Ray discovers Charlene in bed with his brother Mark (Michael Hitchcock), their confrontation is totally out of character with the rest of the wackiness, but a startling moment by itself.
There are a number of these scenes, some involving Ray and Nora (Tracy Middendorf, the light of the movie), who works in the understocked local market and knows a few things (for instance, if you want to hide something in the store, put it behind the personal-hygiene products), and has had a thing for Ray for 18 years. Emotional atrophy is epidemic in Trona, although you can see it all getting better, especially when gas-station mini-mogul Merl (Danny DeVito) arrives in town and asks, “Got any dreams, Ray?”
Whimsy and the macabre are the operating systems in “Just Add Water,” and they’re not always complementary.
Production values are fine.