Film Review: Small Time

You might not buy a used car from the guys in <i>Small Time</i>, but you will enjoy the movie about their exploits, even their exploitations (of others).

We are so used to movies talking about the pros and cons of maternal sacrifice, from Stella Dallas to Kramer v. Kramer to Juno, that it’s refreshing see Small Time, working male issues through the lens of comedy (mostly). Christopher Meloni plays Al Klein, a used-car salesman who learns, amidst a basketful of male hot-button topics, to put his son first. Helping this serious spoonful go down is a lot of macho hijinks mixing up the energy of selling and the camaraderie of a male group at play, at cards, in bars, and just hanging. Al has a faithful sidekick and even more footloose partner, Ash Martini, played by Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”) and a son named Freddy (a charming Devon Bostick, seen in Diary of a Wimpy Kid) who at times seems more together than either his pop or his partner.

Toss in some scenes cleverly reminiscent of the spritzy routines of Diner (but with older folks) and the boiler-room sales tactics of Glengarry Glen Ross, and you’ve got the best highlights of Small Time, set in California’s Valley and interspersed with glimpses of an affluent world which looks like Malibu. Bridget Moynahan plays Al’s ex, who has a successful and monied husband (Xander Berkeley). Freddy lives with them—for now. The crux of the film hangs on Freddy’s future after high school: Will he go to college? Or, in the words of his mom to Al, become a lowlife like his dad? “If he ends up like you, I will hang myself,” she tells Al, though he does bear this insult with equanimity.

At first, it seems she might have a point. Al, a kind of grown-up kid himself, is even late for Freddy’s high-school graduation. But to everyone’s surprise, including this viewer, Freddy suddenly announces he wants to skip college, go live with his dad, and become a used-car salesman. “We can make up for lost time,” he tells Al, in one of a handful of oddly clichéd phrases, especially considering the writer-director, Joel Surnow, is relying on autobiographical details for the script.

Freddy moves in and picks up the tricks of the used-car business so well it’s scary. He’s a natural schmoozer, learning from Al and Ash how to spot a mark, and size up a customer’s paying power. Shoes are key. It’s a blast to watch (unless you’ve ever been sold a lemon, of course). With none of the desperation of some of the characters in Mamet’s play (we hear in backstory of Al’s early days of struggle), “Always be closing“ becomes a run-with-it mantra. You even pick up some enthusiasm for the car as part of the American dream. Or maybe they’re just that great at sales.

The hitch is that Freddy is so good at the gig, as Al realizes in a growing insight, he’s becoming an adult too fast, and learning the lingo and rough-and-tumble lifestyle all too well. The film’s underlying theme of class comes to a head: Al makes a self-sacrificial move.

Meloni’s likeable persona may be too steadfast to render him totally believable as a guy who makes a living pulling the wool over customers’ eyes, and you have to get over mentally ticking off some of the mannerisms left over from “Law & Order: SVU.” They do make his transformation believable, however, as he learns to appreciate other people’s points of view, whether those of his kid, secretary, girlfriend or ex-wife. Yet Moynahan seems miscast, or anyway always overperforming, alternately uppity or just whiney and complaining. It’s Bostick who turns the real trick: playing callow without ever seeming callow.

Nice to see the problems of guys for a change: to bond or not; to hit on women or not; to hustle a buck or not. Even how it feels to get dumped. My favorite here is Amaury Nolasco, the blubbering Hispanic mechanic recently deserted by his wife, hiding a business suit under his grease-monkey overalls, to be doffed when a Hispanic customer, maybe a sale, turns up. Plus, his car buffing-by-dancing is worth the price of admission.

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