The term “vanity project” doesn’t come close to adequately describing the hubristic folly that is “Wheeler,” an excruciatingly dull and self-indulgent faux documentary about a fortysomething singer-songwriter’s rapid and remarkably unimpeded progress toward overnight success in Nashville. It’s a DIY star vehicle for Stephen Dorff, who served as co-producer and co-writer in addition to playing Wheeler Lynn Bryson, a soulful troubadour from small-town Texas. The film gives Dorff license to intermingle with scads of actual Music City notables — including, briefly, Kris Kristofferson — who can’t stop talking about what a great artist and terrific human being Wheeler is. While watching this accumulation of affectations, you keep waiting for a punchline of some sort. But no: The movie remains relentlessly and solemnly sincere in its spinning of a fantasy that’s bound to elicit derisive snickers from anyone who knows anything about the art and commerce of country music.
Indeed, the basic plot is so stupefyingly hokey, it would not have passed muster with the producers of a low-budget drive-in quickie showcasing Nashville stars back in the 1950s. Dorff and co-writer Ryan Ross, who also directed, try to put a fresh spin on the frankly incredible contrivances by manufacturing a façade of realism. Specifically, they have Dorff-as-Wheeler wander around Nashville landmarks (Ryman Auditorium, the Bluebird Café, etc.), gratefully accept one lucky break after another, and perform live at assorted Music City venues (before audiences who reportedly weren’t let in on the joke) while followed by two unseen buddies making their debut as documentarians.
Trouble is, nothing in the movie rings true — not even a weepy scene that has Wheeler revealing details of his tragic past — and none of the character’s generic country songs, written and sung by Dorff himself, sound like they’d make the cut as filler on a Nashville-produced album.
When Kristofferson waxes enthusiastic about Wheeler’s artistry, his admirable maintaining of a straight face is almost as impressive as his feature-length performances in movies by Martin Scorsese and Alan Rudolph. Even more remarkable, however, are scenes in which Nashville luminaries such as songwriter Bobby Tomberlin, Nashville Songwriters Assn. Intl. director Bart Herbison, and Curb Records honcho Jim Ed Norman somehow manage to sing Wheeler’s praises without bursting into intemperate gales of laughter. (Suggestion for a drinking game: Take a shot each time someone describes the Texas transplant as “awesome.”) During those frequent stretches when the sheer tediousness of “Wheeler” is most enervating, viewers may amuse themselves by imagining what would happen in real life if any of these gentlemen were approached by a middle-aged wannabe as unremarkably mediocre as this movie’s protagonist.
It would be excessive to say Dorff is embarrassingly inept as a singer-songwriter. Truth to tell, he probably wouldn’t get booed offstage during open mic night at a second-tier Nashville club. And despite his reliance on makeup and prosthetics to disguise himself while moving among unwary Nashvillians, it would be unfair to dismiss his overall performance as a show-offish stunt. Still, it’s difficult to shake the suspicion that this entire project was designed simply as an overextended ego stroke.