Former cinematography instructor, music video director, and eclectic indie filmmaker Gary Lundgren has hit his stride with this comedy-drama about two men trying to achieve a modest but arduous goal, and redeem their lives of failure and disappointment.
Billed as “a comedy of midlife reinvention and the redeeming power of friendship,” it strikes a nice balance between comical and poignant. The film manages to combine some of the goofy naturalism of Napoleon Dynamite, and the barbed workplace humour of Office Space, with a funny but genuinely sympathetic tale of humble yet potentially life-changing aspirations.
Bobby Hoffman (played by veteran character actor James LeGros) is a dissatisfied man. He lives in a trailer park in a small but far from picturesque town, and holds a mediocre bartending job under the thumb of an entertainingly dreadful boss (Diedrich Bader). Bobby’s recent birthday has also weighed him down with a painful case of midlife crisis that leaves him awkwardly pondering the meaning of life and brooding over past mistakes and lost opportunities. His genuine passion, creating graphic novels, is neglected as apathy becomes his prevailing mood.
Things change when his friend Carlos (Jesse Borrego), a talented chef, proposes going into business together. Bobby puts a carefully hoarded inheritance toward their dream business: a bowling alley and gourmet pizzeria. As the two men cope with challenges, from expenses to artistic differences, to a madly self-important repairman, the promise of success revives their optimism, and Bobby even considers the possibility of a relationship with his long-time crush, Tanya (Lisa Edelstein). Between scenes, we see Bobby’s history and insecurities revealed through his planned graphic novel, an autobiographical story in which human destiny is secretly controlled by aliens. Through these stories, he addresses past tragedies and unresolved issues, from his mother’s sudden death to his failed marriage. (The artwork so effectively revealing Bobby’s inner world is provided by established graphic novel artist Vince Rush.)
The film finds both insight and low-key comedy in random personal conflicts and unexpected mishaps, as well as intense, hyperbolic bowling rivalries straight out of The Big Lebowski, complete with esoteric shots down the bowling lane and from inside the pinsetter. The choice of forgoing film sets and shooting the entire film in a small town (Klamath Falls, Oregon) which fits the description of Phoenix perfectly adds to the realistic feel and immediacy of every scene. Small but important personal breakthroughs alternate with larger but more mundane disasters, leading to a bittersweet and hopeful conclusion. Director Lundgren has acknowledged that his own experience with facing middle age inspired the script, which may explain how he and the able cast manage to capture both the pain and the silliness of this universal experience so effectively.
Phoenix, Oregon will be released in US cinemas March 20, before becoming available digitally and on Netflix later this year.