John Travolta has been riding a weak wave of feature films for seemingly the past decade, his inclusion in FX Network’s American Crime Story withstanding. Though he has appeared in a wide array of projects (all on a sliding scale of quality), he is still recovering from the blistering response for his Oscar-baited Gotti, and has settled back into the safe, typical fare we’ve come to expect. He finished 2018 playing a speedboat racing champion embroiled in a generic crime thriller in Speed Kills, and is continuing his need for speed in the new outing Trading Paint. With Travolta donning the life of a veteran race car driver with family issues and (maybe) post-traumatic stress, it seems the filmmakers wanted to somehow merge NASCAR, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, and Hallmark Channel made-for-television movies into one sappy mess of overplayed plot contrivances and genre pitfalls.
Sam Munroe (Travolta) is a semi-retired local legend of the local Talladega Short Track, who spends his days patching up cars, and crewing his son Cam (Toby Sebastian) as the new driver to take up the Munroe racing legacy. While the pair struggle with their failing equipment constantly keeping Cam from victory, Cam makes a hard choice to work and drive for his father’s nemesis Linsky (Michael Madsen), in order to start winning points and titles. In response, after he trashes his office and fires Cam, Sam decides to get back in the driver’s seat, to prove to others and himself that he is still a winner. While Cam struggles between his family loyalty and his need to feed and provide for his family, Sam struggles with letting his past mistakes go.
“…Cam makes a hard choice to work and drive for his father’s nemesis…in order to start winning points and titles.”
This is where the film’s major problems begin – it’s completely and wholly predictable. While I spent the first act wondering occasionally where it was going, as soon as conflict with Linsky settles in, I was able to accurately predict eighty-percent of the remaining movie. In retrospect, the only reason I wasn’t able to see the plot coming any sooner is due to the overabundance of exposition dumps that domino throughout the first act, which makes it near impossible to understand how any of these scenes are connected to an overarching arc. This is where the most sappy exchanges occur, usually between Travolta and Shania Twain, who plays the convenient love interest Becca – the usual music swells, anecdotes of sweet times turned sour by the passing of a loved one, and how both are able to escape their unpleasant pasts with each other. It as if the film only wanted to involve the climactic scenes from a romance movie with little to no tangible context to give any legitimate weight. Everything in the opening seems rushed and far too compressed, which also amazingly excludes any on-screen confirmation or context as to specifically why Sam and Linsky are at odds – we’re made to just accept Linsky as a bad dude doing bad things with no other motive than he is an intrinsic baddie.
While the remainder of the film eases up with its pace, it falls into the other end of the spectrum, where everything moves far too slowly. When your film is about racing, the dangers of racing, and the local communities that make up the racing culture, then your biggest challenge is definitely going to be pacing, and Trading Paint manages to cock up most of its potential. This is especially true with the actual race scenes, which slide from engaging to monotonous (sometimes within a few seconds) due to its limited array of angles and mounting tension. I only felt once that my expectations were subverted or challenged, and it didn’t last long, as that twist falls into convention after a sequence or two. Though this detail isn’t a bad thing on its own, as some films are able to make overly tried and true methods still seem fresh – this is not one of those experiences.
“…the film lies almost squarely on Travolta’s shoulders, and he leans into his role with noticeable genuinity.”
Honestly, though all of the actors do a decent enough job with what they are given, the weight of the film lies almost squarely on Travolta’s shoulders, and he leans into his role with noticeable genuinity. I had wanted a deeper exploration of the guilt and pressure Sam undergoes throughout the movie, and very little of these inner conflicts are awarded screen much time. They fall back too often on typical plot cliches, and neuter the potential in Travolta and the supporting cast’s performances – though I will say that Kevin Dunn is (as always) a delight on screen.
The score is painfully bland and lacks any resonance; which is truly tragic, since Víctor Reyes was the composer, and his work on One of the Hollywood Ten (2000), Buried (2010), and Grand Piano (2013) still gives me shivers. This disappointment is compounded by Alex Freitas and Julia Juaniz’s editing – it’s downright terrible, disjointed, and unimaginative. Sure, it could have been the best that they could have done under their circumstances, but so many scenes lose their impact due to frantic cutting, where a more deliberate pace would have made emotional moments all the more powerful. Overall, it appears all of these connected probelms all come down to the by-the-numbers screenplay by Gary Gerani and Craig R. Welch, and the miscalculated direction of Karzan Kader (who is responsible for the brilliant 2012 Kurdish-language film, Bekas).
While there are some decent practical effects (including when a car gets split in half), and Travolta leads a committed cast, the film is a mess – a mess that I really wanted to enjoy. Its squandered potential is the worse element of the film, because it has the star power, subject matter, and technical skill to make something unique and fascinating in an arena of American life to which I have fairly little involvement or knowledge. Ultimately, Trading Paint doesn’t amount to much more than an easy way to mindlessly kill eighty-nine minutes.
Trading Paint (2019) Directed by Karzan Kader. Written by Gary Gerani, Craig R. Welch. Starring John Travolta, Toby Sebastian, Michael Madsen, Shania Twain, Rosabell Laurenti Sellers.
4 out of 10