“It’s ‘Rain Man’ with a sexy girl instead of Dustin Hoffman!” So likely went the pitch meeting for “Barefoot,” a return to the cinema of adorable mental illness — something that, like the killer in a slasher movie, always seems to lurch back to life just when you think it’s safely dead — that stars Evan Rachel Wood as a possibly schizophrenic waif sprung from the psych ward by Scott Speedman’s jaded ne’er-do-well. Short on charm, not to mention plausibility, Andrew Fleming’s English-language remake of Til Schweiger’s 2005 comedy won’t travel far in theatrical release through Roadside Attractions on Feb. 21 (simultaneous with on-demand launch), but it’s slick enough to score sales as a cable/download time-filler.
An introductory checklist of cliches — one-night stand, the sour morning-after, strip-club visit, bad luck at the racetrack, unpleasant encounter with mob types he owes money — identifies Jay (Speedman) as your standard medium-bad boy, complete with rich-kid background he’s rebelling against. While at his probation-decreed job as janitor in the mental ward of a Los Angeles hospital, he first meets new patient Daisy (Wood), a beautiful, helpless young woman-child who’s been kept sheltered to the point of abuse by a now-deceased mother. Thus she says things like, “I have to go potty” and “My mom told me driving gets you pregnant,” while running the emotional gamut from excited puppy to sad-eyed puppy.
Soon, for reasons too inane to detail here, Daisy and Jay are on their way to New Orleans, where she will pose as his girlfriend at his brother’s wedding, where Jay hopes to sponge some cash from his ever-disapproving father (Treat Williams) and ever-forgiving mother (Kate Burton). When that plan goes south — albeit not before Daisy gets to act like Cinderella at the palace ball, complete with sparkly gown — the duo steal Dad’s vintage RV and attempt to return to L.A., with the police in hot pursuit.
This is the kind of vaguely creepy screwball whimsy in which an uncritically adoring, certifiably innocent beauty with the mind of a 5-year-old is exactly what a short-tempered, gambling-addicted man-boy needs to turn his life around. Never mind that so far he hasn’t exactly managed his own life very well — surely the power of love will make it easy as pie for him to babysit and teach her basic social skills, so long as they both shall live. “Barefoot” is a particularly egregious example of a romantic comedy in which the logical response to the happy ending is to shrug, “I give ’em a week, tops.”
If the film had a loopier or more fable-styled atmosphere, the concept might have seemed easier to swallow. But Fleming treats Stephen Zotnowski’s script with a glossy literalism that doesn’t do it or the actors any favors. Laughs are few, strained pathos (complete with strategically placed Nick Drake track) is abundant, while the romantic aspect is just … icky. Outfitted in sexy-cute duds from a stripper’s stolen, apparently bottomless totebag, Wood has an unenviable role that she cannot be said to improve in any way. Speedman, his rakish three-day stubble holding steady throughout (he won’t shave even to butter up Dad at the wedding?), has the less embarrassing task and acquits it adequately.
Though the content is weak, the film’s packaging is strong, with Alexander Gruszynski’s widescreen lensing, Tara Timpone’s brisk editing and other tech/design contributions making these 89 minutes go down less painfully than they would otherwise.