“3 Nights in the Desert” is a middling drama starring Amber Tamblyn, Wes Bentley and “Boardwalk Empire’s” Vincent Piazza as erstwhile members of a rock band that almost made it, reuniting after several years’ estrangement. Needless to say, a lot of unresolved issues rise from hibernation during this rural weekend, but the characters, situations and dialogue too seldom escape cliche in Gabriel Cowan’s watchable but unmemorable feature. Cast names should assure some cable and download sales.
“In 10 years we’ll be famous or dead,” chirps one protag in an old college-radio interview we hear off the bat. In the present tense, however, only Anna (Tamblyn) has achieved fame as a pop princess. Drummer Barry (Piazza) opted for the stability of becoming a tax attorney with standard-issue wife and mortgage. After a long collective silence, they’ve been summoned to the desert by erstwhile wild man and guitarist Travis (Bentley), who simply vanished from contact in the interim.
Having initially met because they all share the same birthday, they’ve ostensibly gathered now to celebrate turning 30. But Travis clearly has a hidden agenda or three: It’s soon obvious he wants to reunite on a professional as well as personal basis. But since he was the one who impulsively broke up the band just when they were getting somewhere — and remains the person most likely to pick at everyone else’s sore spots — the others are less than overjoyed by that proposal. Then there’s all the romantic baggage to sort through, since Barry was/is in love with Anna who was/is in love with Travis who maybe was/is in love with Barry (this last dynamic is just vaguely hinted at). When not yelling at each other or storming off, the characters take turns entering a local cave Travis claims has mystical properties, where one’s true desires can be glimpsed.
Despite lines like, “Our songs are gonna break people wide open, man!,” Bentley etches the most intriguing characterization here, bringing live-wire energy to a part that could easily have been a laughable “I’m just too real for you bourgeois sellouts” stereotype. Tamblyn as pill-popping, neurotic star and Piazza as dissatisfied yuppie have a harder time transcending the script. While things start to get a little more penetrating late in the game — as when Anna takes holier-than-thou Travis down a peg with “You think you’re a genius … you’re just talented” — the slight tale wraps before its emotions have a chance to get particularly explosive or touching, instead serving up some very hackneyed symbolism to signal profundity.
While it strains belief a bit that the isolated home Travis built himself should look like a squatter’s shack on the outside but a resort rental on the inside, the pic is otherwise smoothly packaged, with shots of the spectacular SoCal desert surroundings supplying one reliable pleasure. The original songs performed (though not written) by Tamblyn and Bentley, however, do not suggest the world lost much when this fictive band broke up.