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By Merle Bertrand | April 4, 2002

Art imitates life imitates art. That’s the big conclusion one is left pondering after watching director Eric Simonson’s ironic and amusing comedy “Topa Topa Bluffs.” Frank (Robert Knepper) and Henry (Martin McClendon) are a couple of struggling writers cut from slightly different cloths. Although screenwriter Frank hasn’t sold anything since a spec script several years ago, at least he doesn’t carry the albatrossic stigma of being a playwright like poor Henry.
When Henry’s pretty but frustrated girlfriend Beth (Kayren Ann Butler) breaks up with him, he decides to take Frank up on his offer of backpacking deep into the Tope Topa Bluffs outside of Los Angeles. There, in the middle of the trip, Henry concocts a premise that might literally be to die for: What if a struggling writer on a backpacking trip with his best friend comes up with an idea so compelling, the friend is willing to kill to steal it while the writer is willing to kill to protect it. In a clever, if obvious twist, Henry relates his idea to Frank in what eventually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Or does it?
If the “spec script” plays a prominent role in “Topa Topa Bluffs,” then Simonson’s narrative directorial debut works as a sort of spec feature, if you will. And he gets maximum mileage out of this ingeniously simple production, with its minimal cast and mostly outdoor locations. Knepper and McClendon are perfectly believable as the tortured artistic wilderness boys. Simonson, meanwhile, does a nice job with the pacing and execution, leaving the audience wondering if the rattlesnake slithering out of the sleeping bag or the the tarantula crawling from the boot are merely freakish coincidences or something more sinister.
There’s perhaps a twist or two too many at film’s end; a simple case of too much of a good thing. Still, “Topa Topa Bluffs” is a solid debut outing that’s far more entertaining than many other big budgeted films that were themselves probably conceived on nature hikes.

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