Milwaukee, Minnesota contains all the elements of a charmingly offbeat independent film, but somehow those elements never quite gel. First-time director Allan Mindel tries hard to create something fresh and original, but too many other indie films haunt this project.
The good news is that, despite the flaws, Milwaukee, Minnesota sustains interest. R.D. Murphy's story centers on Albert (Troy Garity), a young man with mental and social disabilities who is a champion ice fisherman living with his overprotective mother (Debra Monk) in the frosty city of Milwaukee, Minnesota. Because of the wealth he has acquired from his fishing prizes, Albert attracts several sleazy characters into his life, including the sexy but tough Tuey (Alison Folland) and her hypochondriac younger brother, Stan (Hank Harris). Also entering Albert's otherwise idyllic existence is Jerry James (Randy Quaid), a traveling salesman who claims to be Albert's long-lost father.
Albert becomes caught in the middle of battle between Tuey and Jerry, but both sharks underestimate Albert's intelligence as he plays them against each other, which leads to a dramatic showdown and the unexpected reformation of one of the greedy grifters.
In recent years, all too many "indie" films have attempted to push the envelope simply by being quirky and strange. Milwaukee, Minnesota fits this category and recalls several odd little movies, including Mark Hanlon's Buddy Boy and the Polish Brothers' Twin Falls Idaho (both films released in 1999 and the latter with a title not unlike Milwaukee, Minnesota). Though the plots are different in all three films, they each contain "crazy" characters played by recognizable mid-level celebrities. (In Buddy Boy it's Susan Tyrell and Emmanuele Seigner; in Twin Falls Idaho it's Lesley Ann Warren, William Katt and Garrett Morris, and in Milwaukee, Minnesota the roll call is Randy Quaid, Bruce Dern, Holly Woodlawn and Josh Brolin, playing Woodlawn's lover!). Stylistically, these films also use deeply saturated color cinematography, a sort of berserk combination of Mannerism and Expressionism, and a complementary musical score. (In Milwaukee, Minnesota, Michael Convertino's repetitive chimes sound like sub-par Philip Glass.)
In any case, Milwaukee, Minnesota holds viewers simply by making them care enough about what happens to its unlikely hero. Troy Garity may be stuck with his father Tom Hayden's looks, but at least he inherited his mother Jane Fonda's talent, and he transcends any of the Rain Man type of "idiot savant" caricatures usually seen on the screen. He also makes the gratuitous voice-over narration less obvious than it might have been. Yet even Garity has trouble making the feel-good ending work. The others in the cast tend to overact in their showy, generally unpleasant supporting roles, but who can blame them?
Mindel (a former talent agent) directs competently in his debut feature and the production credits are adequate. But when will first-time directors realize that quirky is no longer quirky when it has been done to death?