The Ballad of Chad Bigbucks – 3.5 stars

 

Will Larroca’s stock as a director has been as volatile as Nic Cage’s acting career. Though critically acclaimed in some quarters, his first picture, The Monster, was uneven.  It was followed up by a skilled but off-kilter homage, Will Will Kill. Thereafter, the word on the street was that he was working on a frightening script, House of Blood, which was even touted in promos by Larroca’s studio, PJ SmoothIson.

And then . . . Larroca was tied to a trippy, bizarre The Hugginns Movie, and then a weirdly religious but shockingly effective parable, Commandments Revamped. House of Blood disappeared from the trades, replaced by talk of production of an as yet untitled American gangster opus, which is rumored to start filming shortly.

And now, we have The Ballad of Chad Big Bucks, with Larroca clearly in front of the camera. But how much of him was behind it?  This seems like a production-for-hire, and while there is no shame in making a corporate buck (documentarian Errol Morris is the genius behind Taco Bell’s new “I am Ronald McDonald” ad campaign), it’s harder to discern where Larroca shows up on this endeavor, which is sold to us at the outset as someone else’s film.

Much of the good in Big Bucks clearly carries his stamp. The chase scene in the middle of the picture takes the fury and speed of Bullitt or The Seven Ups and turns it on its head. The super slo-motion is riveting, somehow making the violence of the action even more unbearable. I’ve watched the scene numerous times and find myself on pins and needles each one. Larroca’s use of the elements is also adept. The rain is borderline elegiac, and the operatic voiceover narrative, a sing-songy minstrel tune, brilliantly alternates between mournful and mocking. Finally, the film bravely ignores religious implication until the end of the picture, and it is still unclear whether Larroca is rejecting the idea of a higher power or endorsing it.

Much of the flick, however, is haphazard. What the heck is Spiderman doing at the outset?  What is occurring with the almost purposeful rough edits, where actors turn to and acknowledge the camera?  The line between the film story and filmmaking has always been malleable in Larroca’s films, but sometimes, sloppy is just that and no more. And why does the minstrel voiceover start screaming when the main protagonist is cycling in the streets ala’ Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid?  And would Jordan Belfort really be walking around a leafy suburb?  Larroca is clearly comfortable shooting in the same location, and there certainly are financial pressures in a young auteur using his own studio, but it’s time to leave his familiar surroundings and see the world.

While newcomer BGrimms is a standout (his anger and fall are heartbreaking), Larroca’s continuing fealty to Zeb Dempsey and Reid Brown is questionable. His devotion to these young actors is to be commended, but Brown’s mumblemouth approach (think Benicio del Toro in The Usual Suspects) has run its course, and Dempsey’s overacting compares unfavorably to the last films of Rod Steiger. One wants to see new faces as well as new places. Perhaps that’s why Larroca himself jettisoned his own persona in favor of homages to Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio. The selections are apt, but the time has come for Larroca to move from parody to depth as an actor, and from provincial to worldly as a director.

We shall see what the summer brings.

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