OK, just to get this out of the way:
. Director Jill Sprecher gets automatic benefit of the doubt around these parts thanks to her first feature, an adroit 1997 indie about female office workers called
. But seeing Greg Kinnear’s bluff, overcoated Upper Midwestern insurance salesman Mickey Prohaska settle into a booth in a suburban restaurant amid beefy white guys clad in winter wear can’t help but bring to mind William H. Macy’s you-betcha car salesman from the Coen brothers’ 1996 classic. When Mickey schemes to bilk a dotty old man (Alan Arkin) to cover his own bad investments and shady deals, and his schemes go badly awry in every way possible, including entangling him in a capital crime with a weedy loose-cannon ex-con (Billy Crudup), the resemblance is impossible to ignore. Character-actor trainspotters may even pick out at least one castmember the two films have in common (hi, Michelle Hutchison—loved you as “Escort” in
). Even Jeff Danna’s score is something of a ringer for the mournful folk melodies Carter Burwell devised for the Coens. Yes,
is set in Wisconsin, not Minnesota, but when it starts snowing 10 minutes in, the differences get further buried.
Which is not to say that there are no differences, or that
is a cynical knockoff. Sprecher and her co-writer, sister Karen Sprecher, have crafted a script that unfolds like a flow chart of every possible noir-plot disaster and twist in the book: petty swindles, big scams, bad caper planning, unfortunate happenstance, spur-of-the-moment murder, cruel fate, the works. And in Mickey, they’ve come up with a worthy variation on the theme—Macy’s fecklessly corrupt Jerry Lundegaard with a lashing of Fred MacMurray’s cynical shitheel from
. But because of the overwhelming déjà vu, or maybe because there’s so little heart at
’s heart—no Marge Gunderson to root for, a lot fewer laughs, an ending that . . . more on that in a minute—you’re ready for this hour and a half to slip by.
When you meet him, Mickey has been reduced to robbing Peter to pay Paul, metaphorically speaking. Separated from his real estate agent wife (Lea Thompson), he’s ducking his mounting bills, skirting propriety with his business’ finances, and trying to inject some new life into his feeble office by taking on eager new salesman Bob (David Harbour). Bob’s gee-whiz honesty baffles Mickey, who seems to view his job as a legal scam, overcharging people for coverage they probably don’t need. But making the sale means sometimes pretending to care a bit, and so he winds up spending a lot of time with Gorvy Hauer (Arkin, upholding his comedic-actor title belt), a rural eccentric living in a house littered with his late sister’s junk. When Mickey discovers that the junk includes an old violin worth $25,000 (typical noir small stakes), he spies an opportunity to literally rob the oblivious Gorvy. Thanks in part to the arrival of ex-con alarm-system installer Randy (Crudup), complications ensue.
Watching Crudup work here is a joy and a definite highlight. Why isn’t he in everything? Is it that Claire Danes thing? In any event, his barely contained hysteria and physical volatility keep everything a little off balance whenever he’s onscreen. And he’s funny too—he and Arkin steal every scene they’re in. But it’s Kinnear’s movie to carry, and though he embodies/inhabits Mickey’s weariness and wariness—with a smile on his face but not in his eyes, sizing up everyone he meets as a potential dupe in the making—neither the script nor Sprecher’s direction ever get behind his Rotarian facade. When everything goes to shit for Mickey, we watch without caring. When
gets to its big reveal (spoiler: There’s a big reveal), it speaks to the Sprecher sisters’ cleverness, but unfortunately it doesn’t much speak to us.