Uneven performances, flat direction and an overall sense of narrative arbitrariness keep “Main Street” from being anything more than a minor footnote to the career of much-lauded playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter Horton Foote. Drawn from the final screenplay he wrote before his death in 2009 at age 92, this understated indie drama strikes dim echoes of Foote’s earlier work, especially his “Orphan’s Home” play cycle. But the frustratingly sketchy characters and relationships suggest the tragic possibility that Foote died before completing a satisfying final draft. After fleeting theatrical play, well-deserved obscurity awaits.
Foote reportedly was approached to write “Main Street” in the first place by producers eager to jump-start North Carolina film production by financing a feature set in Durham. After accepting an invitation to visit the Bull City during an especially harsh economic downturn, Foote noted the abundance of abandoned warehouses once used to store tobacco — and was inspired to concoct a scenario about a waste-storage company rep who offers to boost Durham’s economy by stowing canisters of hazardous material in those warehouses.
Gus Leroy (Colin Firth), a smooth-talking Texan, establishes a beachhead for his company in Durham by renting space owned by Georgiana Carr (Ellen Burstyn), the last member of a once-wealthy tobacco-manufacturing family. When she learns just what will be stored in her warehouse, however, Georgiana seeks help from her niece, Willa Jenkins (Patricia Clarkson), a feisty divorcee who’s initially suspicious of Leroy.
But in one of the pic’s several plot developments that are simply announced rather than adequately dramatized, Willa quickly falls for the waste-company rep — just as he’s preparing to approach Durham town fathers about renting more space.
Meanwhile, lovely twentysomething Mary Saunders (Amber Tamblyn) is determined to leave her fading hometown after a fling with her married boss (Andrew McCarthy). Police officer Harris Parker (Orlando Bloom), her former high-school sweetheart, still loves her and doesn’t want her to go, but agrees to drive her to the airport.
During the drive, however, they engage in what seems less like a conversation than a last-minute delivery of long-delayed (and mostly irrelevant) exposition.
Here and elsewhere throughout “Main Street,” conspicuous gaps in continuity, sudden shifts in character and curious lapses in logic indicate that either huge chunks of narrative were deleted by the three credited editors, or first-time feature helmer John Doyle (an award-winner on Broadway) simply wasn’t up to the task of balancing and entwining diverse narrative threads.
Oddly enough, no one onscreen ever acknowledges the obvious irony: Warehouses that may now be used to store dangerous merchandise not so long ago housed something equally deadly. Maybe Foote didn’t want to offend his producers by raising the issue of tobacco-related deaths, or maybe this, too, is something that got left on the cutting-room floor.
The actors struggle with Southern accents to varying degrees of success: Firth seems more comfortable as a Texan than Bloom does as a Carolinian, while both try to bring shadings of character to one-dimensional, stereotypical roles.
Tech values, including the lensing of the normally reliable Donald M. McAlpine, are unremarkable.