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Review: 'Pete Smalls Is Dead' A Caper Comedy That Doesn't Quite Cut It

Reviews
by Drew Taylor
November 11, 2011 10:00 AM
13 Comments
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Of all the son-of-Sundance filmmakers to come of age in the mid-90s, the one you hear the least about these days is Alexandre Rockwell. For a period, at least, he seemed like he was really going to be a mainstay in American independent cinema. He made a splash with 1992's witty "In the Soup," was a contemporary of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Roger Avery, and Allison Anders (who, granted, has been directing episodes of "Cold Case" in recent years, although she does pop up on "Trailers From Hell" every once in a while), and delivered a segment, with some of those filmmakers, for the Miramax anthology film "Four Rooms." It might be totally unwatchable now, but it was really supposed to be something back then.

In the years since "Four Rooms" he's only completed three films, while teaching film classes at NYU and marrying one of the co-stars of the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (Karyn Parsons, who played Hilary Banks). Well, now Rockwell is back, and trying to capture the zingy, devil-may-care spirit that made him such a promising filmmaker in the first place. The problem, though, is that much of the lustre is gone, and the film, the awkwardly titled "Pete Smalls Is Dead," is amateurish, convoluted, and unfunny.

The premise of "Pete Smalls Is Dead," as best we can figure, involves K.C. (Peter Dinklage, free of Westeros), who owns a laundromat on the east coast and is severely indebted to some very nasty people. He owes them $10,000 so they steal his beloved dog, an event that just-so-coincidentally occurs at the same time his former best friend, a hack film director named Pete Smalls (Tim Roth, full tilt), accidentally drowns. His friend Jack (Mark Boone Junior) offers him the $10,000 if he'll come out west and help him bury their friend. K.C. complies but, as anyone with even a passing knowledge of crime films or film noir can attest, these are false pretenses, and a whole web of intrigue awaits our diminutive hero.

When K.C. shows up in LA, Jack tells him that the kung fu epic that Smalls was completing at the time of his death-by-ocean was actually based on a script he had stolen from K.C. years earlier. Everyone is in a mad grab to either finish the film or sell it off entirely, including Hal Lazar (Ritchie Coster), an unscrupulous producer who is overseeing Smalls' large estate; Bernie Lake (Steve Buscemi in a Halloween shop wig), a small-time, Roger Corman-esque producer; and Saskia (a debut performance Theresa Wayman, of the band all-girl rock band Warpaint). Also Seymour Cassel shows up as a gangster. Or something.

The plot gets hopelessly convoluted, without anything ever moving forward. Imagine a bunch of scenes where people ask other people for money, get beat up, and everyone speaks in profanity-laced pulpy paperback crime novel dialogue (sample narration: "You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince. So Jack and I went frog-kissing"). In the age of the cloud, it seems incredibly anachronistic to think that a movie's fate rested in the hands of a single negative (ask David Fincher about the importance of the "digital workflow" and he'll be talking for a half hour), much less building whole swaths of "Pete Smalls Is Dead" around this premise, including a halfhearted heist sequence that just comes across as lame.

Rockwell, as a director, seems to be losing his edge – what used to feel sharp and crisp comes across as nagging and cynical. The dialogue goes around in circles, striving for some kind of meta-textual film noir cheekiness, but winds up as amateurish and confusing (just because you have characters saying the names of two dozen characters doesn't mean anyone's going to remember them). Technically, the film is an absolute mess. It looks like it was shot on a shoestring, which it most assuredly was, and having Carol Kane wander through the background of some scene isn't going to convince us otherwise. It seems to have been edited by someone new to the cutting edge world of digital editing software – why else would the movie warp into a bubble for no good reason, and what's with the black bar that covers Lazar's penis as he emerges from a pudding-like mud bath? Is that supposed to be funny? Or commentary? Either way, the gag is flaccid. Rockwell should have consulted Todd Solondz on how that's done.

What makes the movie a really disappointing waste of time instead of just a huge, colossal, you-could-have-been-catching-up-on-"Boardwalk Empire" fail, is that it could have been a great opportunity to showcase Peter Dinklage. Dinklage, as shown by his numerous film appearances and highlighted by this year's jaw-dropping first season of "Game of Thrones," is a terrific actor capable of great range but here he's saddled with a melodramatic back story (revealed in the pile-up of a third act), moping around the movie like Phillip Seymour Hoffman in "Synecdoche, New York." Half of the time you think: if he's got cancer, he's not talking enough to let us know. He's also burdened with having an entirely "reactionary" performance, forced to respond to the "kooky" things happening on screen. Everyone else is at least attempting some kind of loose sense of fun in their performances (Lena Headey shows up in a wig almost as bad as Buscemi's), but Dinklage isn't given the appropriate amount of snap for himself. It's a shame. And it keeps "Pete Smalls Is Dead" from ever really coming to life. [C-]

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13 Comments

  • Brian | November 18, 2011 5:39 PMReply

    I'm a bit stunned that a film that tries to be different is eviscerated for the same essential elements that make it sui generis.
    When I imagined cinema I used to close my eyes and breathe in the baker's delight from absurdism to the nouvelle vague. Now it seems we're all seated on the same stool at the same diner pawing at the same slice of stale, cold pie. Sad.

  • Brandon Cole | November 17, 2011 11:03 AMReply

    To the Critic, My name is Brandon Cole, I'm a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America East and I co-wrote this film you trashed, "Pete Smalls Is Dead", with my long-time pal Alexandre Rockwell.

    By way of further introduction, here's some things I've done or have happened to me: 1986 New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship Playwriting/screenwriting; SONS, 1989 directed by Alexandre Rockwell; MAC 1992, directed by John Turturro, Camera D'Or Cannes; OK Garage 1996, best screenplay Avignon, France,
    Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques; ILLUMINATA 1997, directed by John Turturro, main competition Cannes; 13 MOONS 2001.


    With twenty some years in independent film as writer, co-writer, director and producer, I deserve some bashing too but you neglected me.

    I stopped reading "Indiewire" years ago, and, when I read a review like yours, I remember why. This is the kind of review I expect to see in "Variety" and "The Hollywood Reporter": mean spirited, shallow, and crude.

    In my life, I've come to see that there are people who know what it means to have "stature", people who recognize when they are in the presence of someone who has studied and disciplined him or herself, sacrificed when need be, but most of all worked to develop skill. Such people, I've found, have learned how to behave, they have learned how to express themselves, they have figured out finally what is appropriate.

    And there are others, like you, who think all they have to do is raise their voice and attack.

    I suggest you have another look at this film, "Pete Smalls Is Dead", and this time watch it when you're not impaired.

    If you like, send me your address and I'll be pleased to mail you a DVD so you can stop it when you have trouble following the story. This next time round you may find what you missed, you may find the story's pretty simple: it's the story about a guy who with the help of his good friend finds his way back to where he should be.

    You may find that it's a story that may appeal to people leading independent lives who find a personal journey like this one relevant and refreshing. You may find that this film was designed to be appreciated by young people, bohemians, and people in the arts, the kinds of people that Alex and I very much believe matter in this society. You may find this next time around that this film is sweet and funny and unpretentious, character traits which in my opinion you very much lack.

    Looks to me, if you let yourself, if you open yourself up to the journey, you may find a way to re-review this film and apologize to Alex for slurring him personally.

    Failing that, please believe I consider you and the work you do and the magazine you work for contemptible.

    Brandon Cole, WGAeast

  • Phil M. | November 15, 2011 7:43 PMReply

    Judging from the mean ass review and the comments I gotta see this film! What a cast. Saw SOUP a while ago and it 'Rocked' (pun intended). Anyone know how I can see it in New York?

  • Karyn | November 15, 2011 10:57 AMReply

    Wow.

    Not liking the film is one thing, but why the lambasting of Alex Rockwell?

    My name is Karyn Parsons, wife of Alex Rockwell. I came to Indiewire excited to see their review of my husband's film, "Pete Smalls is Dead" as it was released this weekend in L.A. And, while I can handle a bad review, I'm really surprised by the personal preoccupation the writer had with Alex, himself. Bringing up his teaching at NYU and marriage to "one of the cast members of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air" was weird as all hell. Picking on Alison Anders was equally odd.

    I have to say, part of my surprise was that this was coming from Indiewire, a publication founded on the determined, unflinching work of true independent film artists like Alex Rockwell. I don't know of a more independent filmmaker, and have witnessed, firsthand, the sacrifice and suffering it takes to stay in the independent world. Alex busts his ass to gets his films made. Please tell me what good it does to skewer this director.

    You don't like the film? Fine. But why go after him, and his life choices, that have nothing to do with the film?

    Hopefully, readers of this "review" will recognize the unprofessionalism of its writer and make the choice for themselves to give a small, independent, charm of a film a chance. It is one told lovingly, and is full of magical surprises. As L.A. Weekly's F.X. Feeney writes, it is "deeply enjoyable and memorable."

  • Lisa | November 15, 2011 7:39 AMReply

    I have to say, I completely disagree with you. I thought the film was very well done, and very different from most films around today. I'd say the film is aimed at people who think in certain ways, and that anyone who fits within the mindset of the target audience will absolutely love it, and you clearly just don't get it. You're fully entitled to your opinion, but it'd be nicer if you voiced as just that - your opinion. I think this review is far too harsh for what I thought was a brilliant film, and it's a pity that some people who might really enjoy it will see this and be discouraged from ever watching it. It's far from a bad film, and your personal dislike of the film shouldn't colour other people's overall perception of what it is like.

  • Pete B | November 15, 2011 3:22 AMReply

    I had some trouble imagining why Drew Taylor would feel so personally attacked by the lyrical, whimsical, and brilliant Pete Smalls is Dead, a Felliniesque ode to a film-making sensibility in current and one hopes temporary disfavor. So I looked up his other writings, coming across his ten favorites from last year. Sure, Pete Smalls isn't "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" nor is it "Piranha 3D" nor even "Toy Story 3," at least one of which is actually a delight (the last of the three). But it isn't "Inception" or "True Grit" or "The Social Network" either. In fact, none of the ten with the possible exception of "Rabbit Hole" has anything to do with independent film. Some of the ten, including the estimable Korean "Mother" are actually admirable films, but no one would confuse them with the contrarian, original, elegiac spirit of "Pete Smalls." How in God's name could IndieWire choose a reviewer of such unequivocally commercial taste to pass judgement on a film maker and a film so diametrically opposed to his predilections? Has Indiewire tossed in the towel on its former desire to support and advance independent film? Has it decided to morph into a sort of prepubescent Variety (Scott Pilgrim no less)? There isn't one moment in any of the films your bepimpled reviewer admired which has the emotional depth and the redemptive loveliness that one finds at the end of Pete Smalls, when Teresa Wayman takes Dinklage's hand in hers as they walk along the beach through the Carnivalesque music toward a future which neither of them (nor any of us) imagined possible only an hour and a half before....

  • joyce s | November 13, 2011 10:51 AMReply

    I saw Pete Smalls is Dead and found it classic angst-ridden-joi-de-vivre Rockwell. Glad to see him back on the scene. But what's with the review here? Beyond mean the piece smacks of vendetta; did Rockwell sleep with the reviewer's wife, or what? I man why get personal mentioning the filmmaker's wife and even the name of the character she played on TV? Maybe we have a frustrated gossip columnist here. And calling seriously good actor Peter Dlinklage "our diminutive hero"? Where is that? Anyhow, the movie is quirky good fun, zinger dialogue, clean cinamatography, an ode to L.A., a funny slam on producer-types, and sweet into the baragain. The music? I hope a CD of the track comes out. Mark Boone Junior is the sauce in this stew of characters. Rockwell's casting of Theresa Wayman is a coup of unself-conciously smart and sexy. The whole cast lit up. I don't get where the cranky review comes from. Later for Mr. Nasty; I hope the movie finds its audience.

  • Randy M | November 12, 2011 7:55 PMReply

    This film is by no means a slick Hollywood production with formulaic plot points. Despite that, I found it to be quite funny and interesting. Which was evident among most of the theater audience around me.

    As a fan of indie films, shoestring or not, I enjoyed the actors performances and the obviously absurdist statements Rockwell sprinkled throughout.

    And as a music fan, it was amazing to see Theresa Wayman speaking zee French. Warpaint fans are in for a treat. Also found the use of Sigur Ros and other unexpected music choices to be apropos.

    Looking forward to Rockwell's and the actors' next projects.

  • Sam | November 12, 2011 6:55 PMReply

    SHAME ON INDIEWIRE. This is the worst review I have ever read. Sure, Rockwell doesn't make many movies, but I saw this over at Laemmle, and I fucking loved it. It may not be perfect, but it was so REFRESHING not see a depressingly serious character study or love story with droning indie music that has become the norm for any independent film released and gets any sort of "buzz." Buscemi, Michael Lerner, Seymour Cassel, Carol Kane play the most interesting parts that they have had in years! No mention of Mark Boone Jr, who pedals around on his moped thru beautiful night vistas of Los Angeles, bringing Dinklage out of his depression with sheer bombastic attitude and goofy yet sincere gestures. It is great to see Boone let loose in a way he can't do in Sons of Anarchy. As a resident of LA, I relished the exploration of cool parts of the city, even locations used in Chinatown, and underappreciated sides of echo park, filled with a medley of zany, egotistic, contradictory liars, fools and lovers that do exist, and are given their due in this film! The scene between Michael Lerner and Steve Buscemi in a donut shop pitching film ideas around is one of the most bizarre, hilarious scenes I've seen in a long time. With the legendary Seymour Cassel relegated often in more recent years to thankless bit parts, seeing him play a batty old Armenian gangster is a pure joy. Cassel's monologue to Dinklage in the final act is one of the most tender moments in the movie. The world is lucky that Mr. Rockwell is around to give interesting parts to Cassel, the best friend and star of nearly all of John Cassavetes movies. This site probably wouldn't exist without Cassavetes work. So as a resource that is supposed to tout independent film, and bring objective and helpful insight to m0re eclectic tastes, indiewire has failed remarkably in this disrespectful and personal attack on Mr. Rockwell, an artist who does not cow-tow to the so-called standards of the mainstream, and creates interesting stories and characters from the heart, loyally supported by the best and most iconic actors of the American independent film movement.

  • Davyjc | November 12, 2011 2:00 PMReply

    I saw Pete Smalls is Dead and I enjoyed it. It's a quirky film in Rockwell's classic style of motivated and unmotivated invention but its a fun film and Dinklage is great. Roth, Buscemi are great in their roles and LA is another cool character in the film.

    But what is with this "reviewer?" What's the deal with the personal jabs at the filmmaker? How does insulting the filmmaker constitute a review of the film? Totally unprofessional. If Indiewire is in the business of supporting indie filmmakers and its audience, nurturing is important and insults show a lack of class.

  • Christopher Bell | November 11, 2011 1:31 PMReply

    Funny, I just watched "In The Soup" the other day. thought it was "aight"

  • Vicky | November 11, 2011 11:00 AMReply

    I am disappointed that a movie featuring the Armenian mafia is not getting a wide release.

  • Lisa | November 15, 2011 7:37 AM

    I have to say, I completely disagree with you. I thought the film was very well done, and very different from most films around today. I'd say the film is aimed at people who think in certain ways, and that anyone who fits within the mindset of the target audience will absolutely love it, and you clearly just don't get it.

    You're fully entitled to your opinion, but it'd be nicer if you voiced as just that - your opinion. I think this review is far too harsh for what I thought was a brilliant film, and it's a pity that some people who might really enjoy it will see this and be discouraged from ever watching it. It's far from a bad film, and your personal dislike of the film shouldn't colour other people's overall perception of what it is like.

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