“Pawn Shop Chronicles” concerns
three stories of varying degrees of taste that center around a dusty,
middle-of-nowhere bric-a-brac exchange in the Deep South. All stories are
superficially linked through the non-involvement of Vincent D’Onofrio, here
playing a harried small-business purveyor very much used to being held up, but
forever attracted to the lure of a hard bargain. His first customer is a
backwoods doofus (Lukas Haas) who trades in his shotgun for gas money so he can
get to the scene of a robbery, though he seems to have forgotten he’ll need the
gun for said robbery. Ha. Ha.
When he becomes roadkill, we follow his brother (Paul Walker – surprisingly not terrible!) and his redneck associate (Kevin Rankin) as they plot to knock over a local drug dealer. But as white supremacists, they soon realize that the two of them have something in common: they have no understanding of why they should hate black and Jewish people. The prolonged conversation between them is meant to illustrate the maddeningly arbitrary standards of being racist, but instead it feels like two unskilled actors slowly finding their way through condescending improv.
A second, more disgusting story, finds Matt Dillon as a newlywed who comes upon the pawn shop and finds the ring of his murdered first wife. Dillon gives this role a weird sort of gravitas as he engages in a half-hearted detective story to find his apparently alive spouse, furrowing his brow as if he thinks this is a cutting expose on abduction. This story climaxes in a double dose of disreputable dumbness, involving sexual slavery and elaborate only-in-the-movies torture methods that reveal, in between this, the “Maniac” remake, and “Sin City,” that Elijah Wood is one sick little Hobbit. This is exploitation-style grist, of course, but the film’s grim sense of humor feels tone-deaf and arbitrary, slipping in between arch irony, dark inevitability, and wacky pratfall hijinks. The film’s reminder of this spirit involves the framing device that this is all happening inside of a comic book, a pandering flourish of empty significance.
The third, and most embarrassing storyline, finds a dull-witted Elvis impersonator (Brendan Fraser) coming to the state fair broke and loveless, bartering for goods and services with tickets to his show that no one wants to see. Fraser, no longer under the pressure of fronting major studio films, has embraced his inner ham, and his shtick (which extends to end-credits b-roll, unfortunately) relies heavily on high pitched squealing and moaning, though it’s not clear if the joke is meant to be that he’s a terrible Elvis impersonator. His stage show, where the climax of all three stories occurs (though this is based on lazy coincidence rather than a coherent single story), is the only part of this film that feels organic and real: Fraser’s presentation, which involves Elvis gestures over public domain noise, is meant to generate insta-laughs. But the apathetic reactions of the crowd, the frowns of backstage carnies, and the overall dedication to this sad, flailing presentation reflects a certain small-town dissatisfaction towards flashy would-be spectacle, peeling back the sadness of these sorts of sideshows.
Of course, the film doesn’t lean too hard on downer punchlines, finding digressions in whatever comic mischief surrounds these characters. It’s all very first draft, with a layer of supernatural permeating the events that suggests added attempts to connect three wildly disparate storylines. The pawn shop itself doesn’t even factor too heavily in the first or last story, simply providing a pitstop for a sea of character actors that includes DJ Qualls, Chi McBride and Ashlee Simpson. Through most of the film’s punishing 112 minute runtime, you can imagine a bemused, distracted D’Onofrio leaning on his display case, scratching his chin, shrugging at the pointlessness of life. It’s a detour you keep wishing the film would make. [D-]