To put it simply — and, yes, gratefully — “Phoenix, Oregon” is the sort of movie a lot of us need right now. It’s an undemandingly enjoyable and reassuringly predictable dramedy in which nothing, not even the sourball attitudes of its comically unpleasant malcontents, ever is allowed to get out of hand or unduly strain credibility. But it also is too playfully spiky and unaffectedly down-to-earth to come across as bland pablum.
The actors are well-cast, and almost all of them are as engaging as their roles can allow. (One of the aforementioned malcontents actually turns out to the polar opposite of a poor loser.) In short, this well-crafted indie is a thoroughly pleasant trifle that can provide VOD diversion more comforting than a cup of tea during these trying times. And if that doesn’t sound appealing, well, that’s OK: Some people simply don’t like tea.
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(Of course, if these times weren’t so tumultuous, “Phoenix, Oregon” would be opening in limited theatrical release, platforming over the weeks ahead to additional markets. But the film’s distributor has hit upon a novel way of dealing with the new normal: You can go online to the phoenixoregonmovie.com website and purchase a “Theatrical-at-Home” ticket for $6.50. Revenues will be split with the theaters that had originally signed on to exhibit the movie.)
James Le Gros plays — winningly, except when he’s not supposed to be — Bobby, the center of this coming-of-middle-age story set in the titular Pacific Northwest town. Somewhere on the quietly desperate side of 40, Bobby lives in a Gulfstream trailer, where he dabbles at turning traumatic events like the death of his mom and the breakup of his marriage into the storyline for a graphic novel. (Just to make it more interesting, and maybe rationalize why things haven’t been going so well for him, he tosses manipulative extraterrestrials into the mix.)
But Bobby spends most of his time at what appears to be the latest in a series of dead-end bartending jobs, working at a second-rate Italian restaurant where Kyle (Diedrich Bader), the belligerently condescending owner, struggles to remain one step ahead of bankruptcy by buying the cheapest food items possible and seizing half of his employees’ tips.
Carlos (Jesse Borrego), Bobby’s longtime friend, works as chef for the restaurant, and takes more pride in his work than Kyle appreciates, or really desires. Push comes to shove when the owner starts buying olive oil that the chef dismisses as swill. (His complaints, not surprisingly, fall on deaf ears.) The breaking of that last straw is all it takes for Carlos to ramp up his plans to lease a long-shuttered bowling alley — where, not incidentally, Bobby achieved a local-hero triumph decades earlier by bowling a perfect game — and re-open it as a place where he can serve artisinal pizzas, Bobby can offer craft beers and cocktails, and everyone can feast between attempts at scoring strikes and spares. All they need, Carlos tells his buddy, is the right business partner. Or, failing that, the wrong one.
Much like a savvy cook might freely draw on equal numbers of leftovers and fresh ingredients to prepare a tasty dish, writer-director Gary Lundgren borrows bits and pieces from movies as diverse as “Chef,” “Big Night” and (when it comes to adding an under-developed subplot about a food critic) “Mystic Pizza,” and generates mild but amusing suspense with a bowling tournament that plays less like “The Big Lebowski” than the 1979 Tim Matheson vehicle “Dreamer.” (All that’s missing is a climactic inclusion of Little River Band’s “Reach for the Top.”)
At the same time, however, Lundgren evidences a sharp-eyed and sympathetic appreciation for the ambitions, interactions and everyday routines that define life in a town where a less-than-excellent eatery like the one Kyle operates could coast along for a while with a loyal clientele, a combo bowling alley and gourmet pizza palace might generate business for its novelty value alone, and a would-be graphic novelist could find enough gainful employment as a bartender to indefinitely delay taking serious risks with his art.
To be sure, this ain’t Mayberry. (For one thing, the people here occasionally drop F-bombs, the only conceivable reason for the movie’s R rating.) But it’s very easy to believe this is a place that would include among its diverse citizenry and temporary residents Tanya (a standout Lisa Edelstein), a wine and liquor wholesale agent who offers Bobby financial and emotional investment; Al (Kevin Corrigan), an ultra-grouchy bowling-lane repairman who knows nobody else in the area has his expertise, and is all the more obnoxious because of it; and Mario (Reynaldo Gallegos), a purposefully ingratiating venture capitalist who may or may not be on a mission to fleece the rubes.
“Phoenix, Oregon” doesn’t spring an abundance of surprises. But that isn’t to say you won’t be left smiling by the way everything turns out in the end. And by the way: You shouldn’t be surprised if, in the not so distant future, the movie inspires a TV sitcom spinoff.
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