A sub-Tennessee Williams potboiler triangle between restless sexpot, impotent husband, and hunky handyman ever-so-slowly congeals into a lumpy gumbo of thriller elements in “Grand Isle.” This third directorial big-screen feature for veteran Steadicam operator Stephen S. Campanelli has plenty of potential guilty-pleasure signifiers — not least being top-billed Nicolas Cage’s sixth vehicle this year — but the overripe (if underdeveloped) payoff arrives only after a full hour of patience-testing buildup. Opening on 15 screens Dec. 6, it looks to make a much larger commercial impact as a night’s disposable home entertainment in simultaneous on-demand release.
An opening sequence that turns out to be something of a red herring finds Cage’s tippling ex-Marine Walter Franklin roused from slumber in 1988 by a break-in at his rural southern Louisiana manse. The would-be thief manages to get back outside, but is shot by the master of the house as he’s clambering over the picket fence.
The next day, local boy Buddy (Luke Benward) is dispatched to repair the damage, being in the market for any odd job. Just out of the Navy, he’s got a nagging young wife (Emily Marie Palmer) and baby to feed, so he puts up with Walter’s considerable, goading attitude. Even more disconcerting are the excessively friendly vibes emanating from Mrs. Franklin aka Fancy (KaDee Strickland), a former “jazz singer” introduced sidling down the stairs singing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” in a feather-trimmed nightie and high heels. Having fully descended, she murmurs “Happy anniversary, baby,” and promptly slaps her husband (because he forgot again).
Soon enough, Buddy is being tugged like a chew toy between dogs by these marital combatants, a fight not eased by Walter’s liquor consumption or Fancy’s libidinous needs. When a forecast hurricane’s downpour arrives, terminating any further fence-mending, Buddy is eager to flee. But his truck won’t start, forcing him to take shelter with the unloving couple. After-dinner mint juleps, under-table crotch rubbing, and much florid dialogue ensue. Still, it takes a very long time before actual criminal doings commence — including, but not limited to, the revelation of just what horrors lie behind that heavily locked basement door. (Hint: Something similar comprised a considerably more shocking subplot in John Waters’ “Pink Flamingoes” nearly half a century ago.)
All this is framed as a flashback confession told to Kelsey Grammer’s courtly police detective by Buddy, who now stands accused of murder but denies it. The resolution is all too simple, and you have to wonder why “Grand Isle” spends nearly two-thirds of its running time on creaky torrid-emotions-on-the-humid-bayou nonsense, awkwardly cramming most of its actual plot and action into the final stretch.
Adding insult to injury, the script by Rich Donat and Iver William Jallah also gives Cage’s Vietnam vet character a couple unhinged if sincere rants about our nation forgetting those who sacrificed for it. Both actor and film take these moments seriously, but the issues thus raised are hopelessly trivialized by their context of so much contrived Southern Gothic silliness.
Indeed, it’s hard to know just what this mashup of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “The People Under the Stairs” (among other things) was intending — though clearly, it doesn’t work. The actors do as well as they can, less campily than you might expect given the circumstances. Yet “Grand Isle” renders naturalism superfluous, and it isn’t witty or knowing enough to fully embrace its own over-the-top-ness. Indeed, it’s one of those films that might sound outrageously entertaining in full-disclosure capsule description, but in execution largely wavers between the dullish and the irritating.
The movie leans heavily on stock notions of deep-dyed Deep South “atmosphere.” Yet the Franklins’ house looks like it was painted last month, then decorated last week, in a boutique style somewhere between an upscale AirBnB selling “old-school Southern charm” and an episode of “Red Shoe Diaries.” That sense of slightly-stagy airlessness extends to the package overall, despite on-location shooting and pro tech contributions.