The line between priggishness and creepiness is repeatedly smudged by multihyphenate Rik Swartzwelder in “Old Fashioned,” a faith-based drama that looks as lovely as an expensive greeting card, but moves as slowly as a somnolent turtle. Making a less-than-promising debut as a feature filmmaker, Swartzwelder wants to engage his target audience with a tale of moral redemption through chaste romance. Trouble is, throughout a good portion of his movie, the writer-director gives off a disconcerting Norman Bates vibe while playing a small-town Ohio antiques dealer who rents the apartment above his store to a free-spirited young woman and her cat.
Years earlier, Clay Walsh (Swartzwelder) sowed entire acres of wild oats as the producer of “Girls Gone Wild”-type videos. But that was then, this is now: To overcompensate for his wastrel ways, Clay has become positively puritanical, scrupulously adhering to self-imposed rules regarding dating (a no-no) and sexual congress (a hell no-no).
Indeed, Clay has become such a prude that he refuses to be alone in the same room with any woman other than his saintly — but, if should be noted, not entirely uncritical — Aunt Zella (Dorothy Silver). As a result, Amber (Elizabeth Ann Roberts), his new tenant, must wait outside in the cold, wrapped in a blanket, when Clay must enter her apartment to attend to the pilot light. Oddly enough, Amber finds her landlord’s reticence more amusing than unsettling. But then again, given what we learn of her past track record with men, maybe it’s a welcome change for her to be around a guy who maintains a respectful distance.
With his whispery voice, tousled hair, baggy jeans and oversized sweatshirts, Swartzwelder conveys arrested-development boyishness and tightly wound time bomb in equal measure. Audiences primed to expect the worst from characters like this may half expect Clay to set aside his furniture-repair projects at some point and either devote time to his taxidermy hobby, or check on his mummified mom in the basement. To be fair, the character slowly — very, very slowly — reveals that he has the heart (his own, not anyone else’s) of a true romantic. But even when the music starts to play and the candles — lots and lots of candles — are lit, Swartzwelder never develops credible chemistry with the gamely perky Roberts.
The supporting characters are so thinly written that they are almost entirely defined by the actors who play them. Tyler Hollinger adds a mild spark of naughtiness to the proceedings as a sexist shock jock whose friendship with Clay dates back to the latter’s bad old days. And Silver sounds a welcome note of common sense as Aunt Zella upbraids Clay for “the way you carry around ancient, crusty, useless guilt like a tired poodle you want to show off.”
David George’s warm-hued color lensing is quite attractive. But the soundtrack is littered with generic feel-good pop and soft rock, and the treacly lyrics of the tune played under the closing credits (“Life is a thousand songs waiting to be sung … ”) doubtless will hasten the departure of even the film’s most devout admirers.