At first, I was going to describe American Dresser as “Easy Rider, if made by your grandparents.” Then, it occurred to me that Peter Fonda is in his seventies and the late Dennis Hopper would be in his eighties, so Easy Rider was made by somebody’s grandparents. Semantics aside, my original point was to say that the film, written and directed by Carmine Cangialosi, is a sentimental drag. It explores the usual anxieties associated with aging—deterioration, regret, idleness, etc.—but with the intellectual bumpers up.
Our introduction to the story comes on behalf of John Moore (Tom Berenger), who’s grieving his recently departed wife by mixing hard liquor with tears. To torture himself, he begins going through his wife’s things and finds a letter. This letter prompts John to wake his motorcycle from an ancient slumber and hit the road for some good ol’ fashioned, Kerouacian self-discovery. Before leaving, he’s stopped by his old army buddy, Charlie (Keith David), who has his own reasons for seeking adventure. During their travels, they pick up a third wheel, Willie (Carmine Cangialosi), who only seems to have one facial expression at his disposal.
“This letter prompts John to wake his motorcycle from an ancient slumber and hit the road…”
In their travels, the trio hits a number of speed bumps—the metaphorical kind, although some literal speed bumps were present, I’m sure. Among them are a bar fight, an accusation of murder and the occasional bout of infighting. As you’ve probably already guessed, these episodes are meant to illuminate the internal journey that’s occurring in tandem with John and Charlie’s road trip, but the screenplay is too ham-fisted to make any meaningful connections between the two. For a movie about adults and for adults, it takes a disappointingly superficial approach to the themes it raises and, instead, falls back on played-out storytelling devices.
The characters are generic enough to have been plucked off a shelf at the idea store, which gives their experiences an inescapable artificiality. Even Keith David’s natural charisma struggles to animate his dialogue. Like the wind carrying a twenty-dollar bill into your open palm, Bruce Dern happens to stumble into frame, playing the local kook, and the movie suddenly becomes watchable; but just as abruptly, Dern is gone and we’re back at it. When it comes to Willie, Cangialosi forgets that stoicism is all about hiding something, so what we end up getting is little more than a mobile tree stump.
In the grand scheme of things, being a tree stump is forgivable, but it’s Cangialosi’s writing and direction that result in a watered-down, emotionally manipulative experience. Whereas another movie might deftly pull on your heartstrings without you realizing it, American Dresser bludgeons your chest open and clumsily strums your heartstrings with a camel’s hoof.
American Dresser (2018) Directed by Carmine Cangialosi. Written by Carmine Cangialosi. Starring Tom Berenger, Keith David, Carmine Cangialosi, Gina Gershon, Penelope Ann Miller, Bruce Dern, Jeff Fahey, Kathrine Narducci, Andrew Bryniarski, Elle McLemore, Jennifer Damiano, Becky O’Donohue.
2 out of 10