The Alarmist is a small, unobtrusive movie whose currency, for the most part, is satire and whimsy. Based on Life During Wartime, an off-Broadway play by Keith Reddin, this debut feature, written and directed by Evan Dunsky, could be described as amiable except for occasional bursts of dark, even nasty, comedy.
Heinrich Grigoris (Stanley Tucci), a fast-talking con artist, runs a Los Angeles home-security company that is not exactly above board. In fact, it's a pretty disreputable enterprise. Heinrich recruits Tommy Hudler (David Arquette), an eager, unassuming young man, to join his staff, which also includes Heinrich's faithful assistant Sally (Mary McCormack).
Once hired, Tommy is anxious to impress his new boss. He hits pay dirt right away when he calls on Gale (Kate Capshaw), a widow who is attracted by his sincere manner. Tommy persuades her to buy an alarm system. Later, Gale takes him to bed, angering her teenage son (Ryan Reynolds), an unpleasant youth wry beyond his years.
Tommy's romance with Gale heats up, and the young salesman proves to be an effective huckster. Heinrich transforms him into a TV pitchman for his operation, but Tommy begins to doubt Heinrich's integrity. Seems this con man is not above breaking into people's homes-preferably when they are asleep and vulnerable-to generate fear that will lead to more sales. Eventually, Tommy suspects that his boss will stop at nothing, even murder.
Reddin's play was well-received during its limited run at New York's Manhattan Theatre Club, but this type of ironic comedy doesn't always cross over comfortably to cinema. On stage, the arrangement of actors and the immediate response of a live audience can enhance material that, viewed in a movie theatre, might seem minimalist and arbitrary. This would seem to be the case here, since first-time filmmaker Dunsky doesn't always know where to place his camera to maximize the edgy humor that lurks near the script's surface.
The Alarmist reaches a comic high during a mid-way sequence in which Tommy takes Gale home to meet his parents (played by Arquette's real-life father, Lewis, and actress Michael Learned), who proceed to put both their son and his older lover through an uncomfortable ordeal. Other memorable scenes involve a temperamental TV director (Eric Zivot) who thinks Tommy's TV commercial should be artistic and a sequence concerning a gun-happy homeowner (Hoke Howell) and his devoted spouse (Ruth Miller), the kind of folks who might just welcome a nighttime intruder.
The contrast between Arquette's eager everyman and Tucci's smarmy manipulator is at the center of this film, and both actors mine their characters' flaws and contradictions to good comic effect. But a violent struggle between the two men in the final reel is far too prolonged, pushing the movie into something resembling a satire of action films. The Alarmist works best when it allows its unconventional characters to generate some modest but agreeable laughs, but, regrettably, those laughs are few and far between.