Gary Lundgren is a writer/director who has been making feature films since 2009 but you might not have heard of him unless you came across one of his movies at a film festival. Despite a lack of exposure and spotty film distribution, he continues to go his own way and Phoenix, Oregon, his new film and fourth directorial effort, might possibly connect with audiences looking for something a little more personal and character-driven than the typical summer blockbuster releases.
Set in Phoenix, Oregon (yes, it’s a real town in the Northwest not far from Medford), Lundgren’s film is an affectionate portrait of two former high school pals, Bobby (James Le Gros) and Carlos (Jesse Borrego), who are stuck in unrewarding jobs and want to break out of their rut. Of the two, Bobby is a mopey pessimist, living in an Airstream he inherited from his deceased mother and preferring to work on his memoirs in graphic novel form when he isn’t being a bartender at a local upscale restaurant. His pal Carlos, who works as the chef at the same restaurant, has the opposite temperament; he’s upbeat, cheerful and intent on realizing a long-held dream – to open a bowling alley that serves high quality pizzas using the finest organic ingredients.
With the help of Tanya (Lisa Edelstein), a wine/alcohol rep, Carlos is introduced to Mario (Reynaldo Gallegos), a globe-trotting venture capitalist who has invested in the local marijuana industry. The latter commits to being the prime financier in Carlos’s scheme and Bobby is eventually convinced to part with his small inheritance to become Carlos’s business partner.
The idea of two working class guys owning and operating their own business might not sound that unusual or ambitious in the scheme of things but the stakes are extremely high for these would-be entrepreneurs and the scenario seems ripe for possible comedic and dramatic fireworks. Will their bowling alley/specialty pizza business turn out as wacky as the gourmet art cinema drive-in envisioned by John Waters in Polyester where Marguerite Duras triple features are shown with caviar and champagne being served at the concession stand? Could something go terribly awry to sabotage their much anticipated opening day? Will Bobby, a one-time bowling champion, suffer a humiliating defeat in a public grudge match against his slimy former boss Kyle (Diedrich Bader)? Sorry, but Phoenix, Oregon is not that kind of movie.
Director Lundgren prefers instead to focus on the day to day realities of life in a working class town like Phoenix and the way Carlos’s unflagging optimism has a life-changing effect on Bobby who likes to blame everything that goes wrong in his life on aliens. The style of the film is more observational than dramatic and not than plot-heavy. It’s much closer in tone to the mumblecore films of Andrew Bujalski (Support the Girls, Results) than an indie, feel-good comedy-drama such as 1979’s Breaking Away or 1996’s Big Night. Unfortunately, that is part of the film’s weakness as well. Situations that seem disastrous or doom-leaden like the revelation that Mario is a complete fraud and fabulist are treated more like par-for-the-course life lessons for our protagonists instead of being portrayed as potentially ruinous on a financial scale.
Luckily, Lundgren has assembled a wonderful ensemble of actors with James Le Gros bringing a shaggy charm and little-boy-lost quality to Bobby. Le Gros has had a long and impressive career as a character actor and there was a time between 1989 and 1992 when I thought he might break out as a major leading man after memorable roles in such films as Drugstore Cowboy, Point Break, My New Gun opposite Diane Lane and Guncrazy with Drew Barrymore. That never happened and I doubt Phoenix, Oregon is going to make Le Gros a household name either but it’s good to see him opting to star in offbeat, indie projects instead of just concentrating on mainstream Hollywood fare.
The other cast standouts are Jesse Borrego, who has appeared on such cult TV series as 24 and Dexter, as the irrepressibly hopeful Carlos and Lisa Edelstein, who generates warmth and an appealing unpredictability as a woman who challenges Bobby to be a better man. Less effective are Diedrich Bader (Veep, American Housewife) as the pompous restaurant owner who steals money out of his employees’ tip jar and says things like “Be thankful you even have a job” and Kevin Corrigan (Goodfellas, Seven Psychopaths) as a hostile bowling pin repairman. Both actors overplay their obnoxious characters as if they were in a much nastier, broader comedy like the bowling farce Kingpin (1996) and the clash between the naturalistic performances of the main actors and these smaller character parts is often grating.
Overall, Phoenix, Oregon is a pleasant, low-key character sketch that might find an audience that is receptive to its modest but heartfelt vibe. Interestingly enough, it is the fourth film from Lundgren set in Oregon (most of it was actually filmed in Klamath Falls, Oregon). The director has admitted in interviews that he likes filming in the Northwest because he is fascinated with small town community culture in working class boondocks like Phoenix. He says they “feel almost like resting areas where people got off the highway to figure themselves out. People are looking to start a new chapter, but there’s also this sense of treading water.” In that respect, Phoenix, Oregon is part of of a quirky, indie tradition that includes Robert Dornhelm’s Echo Park (1985), Percy Adlon’s Bagdad Cafe (1987), and Allison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging (1992).
Phoenix, Oregon has been touring the film festival circuit this past year but is scheduled to premiere in Atlanta at the Springs Cinema and Taphouse on July 24. For more information, you can check out the film’s official website – Jomafilms.com.
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