Film Review: Uncle John

A good movie is buried beneath the padded conceit of a crime drama and a romantic comedy that play on separate paths until converging at the end. But veteran John Ashton has a brilliant late-life showcase, and director Steven Piet has an eye to watch.
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We get the point that first-time director and co-writer Steven Piet is making in Uncle John: How well do we really know anyone, even our closest family members? And we understand that families can have secrets they'll carry to the grave—whether their own or, as in this case, someone else's.

What we don't understand is why Piet and co-writer Erik Crary would pursue such a pungent point in such a bloated and meandering manner, in which good performances by a veteran character actor, a promising newcomer and a one-scene bit player who jumps offs the screen nearly sink into the miasma of see-sawing tone and pointless scenes that bring this crime drama/romantic comedy to nearly two hours in length.

You heard that right: crime drama/rom-com, but not in the manner of Prizzi's Honor, Mr. & Mrs. Smith or Shoot 'Em Up. Rather, in the manner of the world's worst double feature, in which two movies' reels got mixed up. We acknowledge that this was a conscious choice by filmmakers admirably trying something different; Piet said in an interview he and Crary wanted to create "a thriller set in a small town and a romance set in the big city. The contrast between the two is what's cool about it. It's something [we] hadn't seen before." To quote Josh Gad's reaction to a similar statement in TV's "The Comedians": "With reason."

We open with the aftermath of a murder. Craggy-faced, sixty-something rancher and carpenter John (John Ashton, indelible in two Beverly Hills Cop movies and Midnight Run, among many other credits) has killed Dutch Miller, an "old charlatan" who's found God and has been going around town apologizing and making amends for past misdeeds. John disposes of the body by burning it at the local quarry, careful to rummage out teeth and bones and grind them up. Sometime later, after Dutch is declared missing, we learn at John's daily diner coffee klatch that Dutch was rumored to have had a fling with John's now-deceased wife. Some unspoken but clear revelations later in the film suggest just how much of a fling that was.

On to the rom-com part, which for the vast bulk of the movie takes place in cutaway scenes completely separate from the down-home drama of police investigating Dutch's disappearance and Dutch's brother Danny (Ronnie Gene Blevins) knowing in his gut that John's a murderer. So here's Ben (Alex Moffat), a likeable sitcom character, basically, who works as a computer-graphics guy at a Chicago production house specializing in commercials—something the movie takes its time to reveal, for no discernible reason. At first we think maybe it's a TV news operation due to the arrival of Katelyn Barnes (Jenna Lyng), a newly hired junior producer from New York. So…why leave something so trivial as the movie's setting up in the air? Similarly, neither John's town nor the state are identified—which is a valid choice if you're going for a sort of ethereal anywhere, but much later we learn that Ben lives in Chicago and that John is two and a half hours away in a town boasting a "Sauk campground." So: Sauk County, Wisconsin. If you're going to all the trouble of being that specific, why make the locale a mystery?

In any event, the two stories eventually merge, after side trips to things like a post office to pick up a package, a one-night stand with a character who never reappears, a tour of the ranch and a flirty carpentry client—not one of which affects the plot or the characters in any meaningful way and could have been excised not only without hurting the story but with the benefit of making that story more focused and less padded. David Lynch, whom the filmmakers profess to admire, often inserts odd tangents, yet they generally illuminate a character by showing how he or she reacts to weirdness. When we see John having the same reactions with different people, well, I guess the filmmakers could argue we're seeing John's mask staying in place no matter what, yet it still feels redundant. Maybe it's a matter of execution, and Piet—who is undoubtedly talented, picks shots well, and envelops the film with a sense of nature observing the proceedings—just needs more experience.

He already makes nice use of ambience, bringing a you-are-there sense of neglected county roads and dirt driveways through point-of-view shots from John's pickup. And I get the impression he likes working with actors—maybe too such so, judging from a couple of excruciating and interminable sort-of date scenes between Ben and Kate. Those bits might have worked better had there been any chemistry between the two actors—Lyng is unusually, extraordinarily lovely and seems serious about filmmaking, judging from her work as a producer-director of shorts and as screenwriter of a low-budget science-fiction drama in production, but her character is unconvincing either as a producer, lacking any sense of authority or leadership quality, or as a romantic interest, coming across as a tween who's never been on a real date. Ironically, it's bit player Tawny Newsome, as a drunk girl whom Kate weirdly and inexplicably arranges as a one-night stand for Ben, who comes across as a strong woman and a real person. It's hard to play a drunk without lapsing into mannerisms but she manages it terrifically and delivers dialogue with such naturalness it feels improvised—and if it was improvised and not scripted, send this girl to Second City. But the filmmakers do nothing to connect that scene to the larger story. It’s one more throwaway that didn't get thrown away.

Fortunately, Ashton, in every scene he's in, even those that don't aid the story, is in great control, projecting such a tension hidden beneath the surface that you're never sure if John's going to blurt out the truth. And I hope the utterly charming Moffat won't be hindered by his resemblance to the young Matthew Perry—a moment in the film when Uncle John asks if he "talks to Rachel anymore" made me think, "Isn't he going to ask about Monica and Joey?"

Uncle John is ultimately a problematic movie. There's so much good here, but it’s buried beneath fat, with actors that for the most part were well-chosen even in small roles—Tim Decker as production company owner Dex steamrolls through like a million bosses whose success is inexplicable. This may be the only time I've wanted to see a director's cut where there's less material.

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