April 6, 2007

Live Free or Die: A New Hamsphire caper comedy

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Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): **½

Live Free or Die is not only New Hampshire's cranky state motto but the name of a new independent film [trailer; currently only playing in a handful of theaters] set in that cinematically neglected New England state (it's also close in name to the latest Bruce Willis disasterpalooza - Live Free or Die Hard). This decidely un-Hollywood film stars Tadpole's likable Aaron Stanford as Rudgate, a.k.a., "Rugged," a former juvenile delinquient turned overconfident but mostly incompetent petty thief who aims to make a big score, but can't seem to get anything right. Along the way he picks up an old acquaintance, the slow-witted Lagrand, played by favorite David Gordon Green actor Paul Schneider, doing a 180 from the romantic lead in Green's All the Real Girls. Nothing goes quite according to plan, of course, and while much of the proceedings are watchable and even - on a few occasions - quite funny, the mistaken belief plot that takes center stage becomes enervating before the end.

An indie approach to the small time crook genre isn't anything new, but the film has a fresh energy and the authentic New Hampshire locations to give it a little oomph. It should appeal to fans of the quirky, bumbling caper films Safe Men and Palookaville, although it has less of the comic highs of the former and less of the artistic integrity of the latter. Written and directed by two Seinfeld writing alums, Gregg Kavet and Andy Robin, the film to its credit is much less schticky and "small screen" than expected.

The film begins and ends, a little awkwardly, with voice-over narration by Marcus, the younger hoodlum-wannabe who tires of Rugged's schemes, and which reminds a little of the dreamy-eyed voice over provided by Linda Manz in Days of Heaven. Marcus looks up to Rugged, or expects more out of him, and by the end has turned around how he sees him. The finale is actually surprisingly touching; it just doesn't quite feel like it belongs in the same movie.

The cast of oddball supporting characters who get in Rugged's way, include a cameo from Judah Friedlander (Toby in American Splendor; TV's 30 Rock) as a foul-mouthed hardware store owner with a secret (or two); Kevin Dunn as the beleaguered police chief; the always on-edge Michael Rapaport as a highly distracted cop; Ebon Moss-Bachrach (remember that name, though he may want to concoct a new nom de cinema), hilariously off the hook as the angry thief who briefly partners with Rugged; and the always appealing Zooey Deschanel (who also co-starred with Schneider in All the Real Girls), here given very little to do as Lagrand's exasperated sister. I expected there to be some romantic subplot between her and Rugged; it's probably to the film's credit that it sidesteps this entirely, but I found myself feeling disappointed that there wasn't anything there. Stanford's a solid young actor who has good screen presence but something about him seems too light, the "edge" a little contrived, for a role requiring more menace.

Even as quite a few of the gags work well, the film meanders a bit too much, and has trouble maintaining the right tone throughout. Live Free or Die may well be one of those films where the script is funnier on paper than it is in the deadpan way it's delivered in the finished product. Or perhaps the second time around, as with a film like The Big Lebowski, which is funnier every subsequent viewing - though the Coen Brothers film it may remind people of more is Raising Arizona. Certainly, a couple of lines here made me chuckle when they hit me again later than they did initially. This isn't high praise, but does raise the possibility there could be cult status in the film's future. As for now, consider it a middlingly successful farce, worth stealing your time for but ultimately not quite a grand theft.



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Posted by cphillips at April 6, 2007 12:43 PM