A very familiar face who’s worn a lot of hats on both the big and small screens over the last three decades, actor William Fichtner dons a new one as writer-director (as well as star) of indie feature “Cold Brook.” But his going behind the camera for the first time is perhaps less surprising than the anachronistic nature of this polished yet rather rickety, Capra-esque fantasy in which two modern small-town Average Joes become helpmates to the restless spirit of a freed black slave from 160 years ago.
This odd concept is played for uncomplicated warm-and-fuzzies, making for a harmless but hollow movie that takes on a serious historical theme in the most flyweight way possible, and has the comforting throwback feel of a Geritol commercial. After a run at several minor festivals, it is definitely likelier to do better on VOD and digital than the eight U.S. theaters on which it launches Nov. 8.
After a somewhat labored opening in which middle-aged Ted (Fichtner) and his buddies prove “boys will be boys” amid a paintgun battle and other frolics at a rural cabin, we learn they’re all citizens in a pleasant college town where apparently nothing ever happens. That must be the case, since when Ted and his best-bud fellow campus maintenance worker Hilde (Kim Coates) spy an after-hours intruder at the local museum — without even identifying or apprehending him — they’re treated as “hometown heroes.” That extends to being feted at a banquet hosted by the university dean, in whose office Ted’s wife Mary Ann (Robin Weigert) works.
This seems improbable, albeit not so much as the fact that the two men eventually glean the mysterious, elusive visitor is Gil Le Deux (Harold Perrineau), who’s been dead since 1857. As no one else can see him, it’s clearly up to our heroes to figure out why his spirit isn’t at peace. They eventually realize that, not unlike E.T., he needs to “go home,” belatedly completing a life’s journey that was foiled by long-ago tragedy. Meanwhile, the non-spectral protagonists’ behavior — talking to an invisible being, snooping around the museum late at night — arouses the concern of their spouses (Mary Lynn Rajskub plays Hilde’s), as well as the suspicion of a dim-bulb campus cop (Brad Henske) jealous of all the attention their ersatz “heroism” got.
Before everything gets resolved in a whoosh of celestial white light and hugs, “Cold Brook” belies its supernatural conceit with a bland seriocomic tenor complete with picture-postcard visuals and a soundtrack of NPR-worthy, rootsy Sunday brunch music. There are a lot of highly capable performers here, but they’re asked to do very little — even Fichtner and Coates, onscreen throughout, are called upon to be merely pleasant. A few thesps might have benefited from doing even less, as the comedy relief of Henske and Bob Bozek is feeble. And the standing-around-looking-puzzled that Perrineau is called upon to do does not rise sufficiently above “Magical Negro” terrain.
There’s no complexity to anyone or anything here. Even the hint of family conflict in the portrayal of our heroes’ children as bratty teens goes nowhere in the director and Cain DeVore’s screenplay, which at times teeters on the edge between simple and simple-minded. While Fichtner’s handling is smoothly low-key enough to avoid outright hokum or unintentional laughs, there’s still an old-fashioned quality to “Cold Brook” that’s less charming than oddly disconnected, as if the makers wanted to inhabit a “Truman Show” or “Pleasantville” environ minus the elements of irony or critique. Needless to say, that leaves their African-American ex-slave — still traumatized from the institutionalized wrongs of another era — incongruously swimming in a cinematic bowl of vanilla granola.
It’s a strange enterprise, rendered all the more so by how innocuously it plays. The most prominent elements in a well-turned assembly are Edd Lukas’ attractive cinematography and David Butler’s production design, both of which could pass as Chamber of Commerce adverts for the film’s fictive upstate New York hamlet.