According to the press notes, “Reach Me” director John Herzfeld first wrote the script for this ensemble dramedy circa 2001, which makes sense given that the film bears more than a faint aroma of Herzfeld’s “2 Days in the Valley” (1997), one of the least offensive of the era’s many “Pulp Fiction” also-rans. Here again Herzfeld gives us a dozen or so SoCal dreamers and schemers — soulless gangsters, aspiring starlets, undercover cops, muckraking bloggers — whose wayward lives crisscross and collide whenever they aren’t being miraculously transformed by the words of a mysterious self-help guru. A misbegotten venture that constantly ups its own ante on histrionic overacting, ludicrous plot twists and insipid empowerment mantras, Herzfeld’s puzzling concoction is likely to make most viewers reach for the remote control when it opens in limited theatrical and VOD release Friday.
Herzfeld, whose career somehow lived to fight another day after his 1983 debut feature, “Two of a Kind” — a spectacular Hollywood turkey that imagined John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as a failed inventor and bank teller chosen by the angels to restore God’s faith in mankind — is a master of unintentional kitsch, and most of his latest plays out like a Mel Brooks or Zucker Brothers parody movie minus the actual jokes. You know what you’re in for right from the start when Herzfeld opens the film with a character named E-Ruption (Nelly), a fresh-from-the-slammer gangsta rapper who uses his appearance on a morning talkshow to plug not his latest album, but rather the self-help book, “Reach Me,” that saved his life. (He does mean that literally: Cue flashback of said book shielding E-Ruption from an enemy’s shiv in the prison library.)
Well, it seems “Reach Me” is actually all the rage within the California penal system, where it’s also been embraced by Colette (Kyra Sedgwick), who’s about to be paroled from an arson conviction (she burned down her own house as some kind of revenge on her abusive/unfaithful husband). And it’s on the reading list of Gerald (Sylvester Stallone), the editor of a Huffington Post-style website who dispatches his green reporter/lackey Roger (Kevin Connolly) to get the skinny on “Reach Me’s” Salinger-like author, Teddy Raymond, who’s never given an interview or made a public appearance. You’d think Raymond would be relatively easy to spot, given his predilection for making all his phone calls from the same Redondo Beach pay phone; but lo, this particular pay phone has so many customers (in 2014) that it takes Roger an entire montage sequence (and a can of mace in the face) before he finally ferrets out his man (a nicely rumpled Tom Berenger, giving the only thing remotely close to a low-key performance here).
Meanwhile, Colette arrives back in town just in time to learn that her actress niece (Elizabeth Henstridge) has been sexually assaulted by her co-star (Cary Elwes) on a new TV show — on set, during a sex scene, in full view of the crew (a scene in which Herzfeld gives himself an ill-considered cameo as the TV director). Fret not: Retribution looms in the form of undercover Det. Wolfie (Thomas Jane), whom the women meet-cute via car crash and then nurse back from his concussive state. Like everyone else here, Wolfie has some existential cross to bear: chiefly, his guilt over the 44(!) bad guys he’s killed in the line of duty, which means a lot of time spent in the confessional with a dejected, booze-swilling priest (Danny Aiello) — scenes that serve mainly to beg the question, “What happened to Danny Aiello?”
But wait, there’s more! All for one low price, Herzfeld also throws in a perpetually golfing Arizona gangster (Tom Sizemore, looking about as embalmed as Aiello), who dispatches a couple of goons (David O’Hara and Omari Hardwick) to L.A. to collect a debt. Except the goons don’t really want to be goons anymore — not after cracking open their own paperback copy of “Reach Me” (there doesn’t seem to be a Kindle edition) and deciding they want to maximize their own potential. And so the film creaks along until all points eventually converge on the Redondo Beach pier, where Raymond’s long-awaited public unveiling is interrupted by a merry-go-round shootout and a graphic act of dismemberment-by-rabid-dachshund.
The characters in “Reach Me” embrace the titular tome the way the characters in Christian propaganda movies (like this year’s surprise hit “God’s Not Dead”) find themselves drawn to the Good Book. But true to his typically scattershot style, Herzfeld doesn’t seem to have figured out why Raymond’s book is such a phenomenon in the first place. Mostly, we see people reading the same few pages over and over, marked by the kind of banal power-of-positive-thinking bromides (“Until you’re off this planet, you have another chance”) one might find stitched on an embroidered plaque in a hospital waiting room.
Those sentiments are countered in the film by the seen-it-all cynicism of Stallone’s Gerald, who spouts such pearls of journalistic wisdom as “You’re either toothless or ruthless” and “No one’s writing great novels anymore, they’re writing sexy books.” But Stallone, at least, embraces the ridiculousness of the role, from his cream-colored fedora and designer specs (someone’s idea of what big-time bloggers look like) to a scene that finds him splattering paint on a pseudo-Pollack canvas (painting being a real-life Stallone pastime). He’s also managed to muscle his brother Frank on to the soundtrack for a couple of original ballads, and secure a cameo for daughter Scarlet. His feast is the audience’s famine.