Writer-director Matt Mulhern’s “Duane Hopwood” isn’t a textbook example of how not to make a character-driven dramedy, but it’s close. Loaded with unoriginal ideas, weak comedic concepts, and underwhelming emotional climaxes, the movie is the definition of bland.
David Schwimmer plays the title character, a pit boss at Caesar’s Palace in Atlantic City. Recently divorced, he’s on a downward slide with alcohol that quickly culminates in a DWI stop. Duane spends the rest of the movie trying to dig out from beneath the heap of trouble his arrest precipitates.
We learn a fair amount about Duane’s family, friends and job, but we don’t get much insight into the man. Schwimmer’s capable but unimaginative performance is largely to blame. He plays individual scenes well, and summons tears and angst when appropriate, but he’s never different from the self-pitying shlub he’s played in movies and TV shows for the last decade. It’s tempting to cut him slack because he put his muscle behind a little character picture, but since he’s in every scene, it’s not as if his efforts were selfless.
The plot is nothing new, and barely worth reiterating. Duane’s ex, Linda (Janeane Garofalo), has a new man, so she’s poised to leave town with Duane’s two daughters. Duane’s best friend, Anthony (Judah Friedlander), wants to realize his dream of becoming a standup comic. And our intrepid hero might, just might, damn it, find new love with a hot local barmaid (Susan Lynch). Connect the dots to where all this is going, and you’ll still be overestimating how much this picture delivers.
Schwimmer is at his best, natch, delivering stock punchlines. But most of the humor — of which there isn’t nearly enough — comes from Friedlander, so good as the über-nerd in “American Splendor.” He plays a generic schmo with a dream, yet so many of his lines are odd and natural that it seems likely he built on Mulhern’s thin script with improvisations. Vintage TV personality Dick Cavett appears in a few scenes as Duane’s neighbor, and the potential of his role is never realized.
“Duane Hopwood” fails to build a head of steam. Too many bland montages, brainless pop-song placements, trite scenes, and wasted opportunities derail the movie’s best intentions. Lynch’s character, for example, is a typical bad-movie cipher; she shows up, sleeps with Duane, gets her feelings hurt, disappears for a good half-hour, then shows up for the requisite hopeful clinch near the end.
Not a total loss because of funny contributions from Friedlander and earnest work from the rest of the cast, “Duane Hopwood” is unlikely to improve Schwimmer’s unfortunate track record on the big screen.