This was no college like I ever attended! Take three typical high-school seniors--the nerd (Kevin Covais) the good-looking Regular Guy (Drake Bell) and the hell-for-leather go-for-broke Horny Fat Guy (Andy Caldwell)--and let them loose during freshman orientation at fictional Fieldmont University. Just add beer marijuana and wild sex and you’ve got what may well be a new Frat House Classic one that adheres studiously to the tenets of the teen-comedy genre which also includes defying authority and destruction of public property. When it comes to the so-called “guilty pleasures” of 2008 this makes the Dean’s List. Like any good college hangover you’ll hate yourself in the morning--but you’ll still be laughing. Credit an enthusiastic cast and a refreshing (but quite appropriate) disregard for the rules. Drake Bell (of Nickelodeon’s Drake and Josh fame) who looks far too old to be contemplating a college career is ostensibly the leading man here. Yet the principal selling point of the film is the onscreen camaraderie between he and co-stars Caldwell who plays it full-tilt a la John Belushi and Chris Farley (and that is meant as a compliment) but holds back enough when the ensemble demands require and Covais who all but steals the film with a smart shrewd take on the big-screen geek. A good deal of the film’s energy can be traced directly to them. The whole show is the three boys and they have a great easy rapport that transcends many of the worst trappings of a film like this. They feel like friends and that goes a very long way in a film that in some ways doesn’t deserve so rich an effort but benefits from it nonetheless. College marks the feature debut of director Deb Hagan who manages at times to give the film a fresh visual perspective while maintaining a relaxed but steady momentum. College is neither original nor good but it is enjoyable (far more so than would be expected) and it is fast-paced. It also delivers exactly what it promises. If it’s bang for the buck you want it’s bang for the buck you got when you enroll in College.
Charlie (Michael Douglas) has been a mess for quite a while. A jazz musician who has battled schizophrenia and manic depression for years has spent the last couple living in a mental hospital. His 16-year-old daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) has been living on her own in the family home (mom is long gone) having quit school and gone to work at McDonald’s to make ends meet. When Charlie is released and comes home the pair begins to tentatively rebuild their relationship. The good news is that Charlie is taking his meds and handling the real world reasonably well; the bad is that he’s developed an obsession with a legendary cache of Spanish gold doubloons reportedly buried near their dusty California home. When Charlie begins to convince Miranda that he really isn’t crazy--at least when it comes to the treasure--together they begin a Don Quixote-like journey that cements their fractured relationship back together. Forget Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko the ultra-smooth Wall Street guy or as dashing Jack Colton of Romancing the Stone fame. These days Douglas now 62 has said he needs a really good reason to leave his family so this role where he can play a scraggly bearded wild-eyed edge-of-nuts guy is just the ticket. Douglas gives one of his best performances ever as Charlie striking just the right balance of intellect insanity and inherent love for his no-longer-little girl. Plus the man whose on-screen persona has often been all about male vanity is anything but that in King of California. He’s a scrawny whippet of a guy rather than a hunky leading man and it’s a transformation that just may get him another Academy Award nomination. Meanwhile 20-year-old Evan Rachel Wood proves that she really is an acting force to be reckoned with giving a gently nuanced performance as a girl who has had to grow up way too soon yet still completely loves the father who has struggled to care for her as he struggles with his personal demons. First-time writer/director Mike Cahill has done a first-rate job of bringing this quirky funny and slightly poignant story to the screen. Perhaps the reason he’s been so successful is in the company he keeps. A film-school friend of Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (Sideways About Schmidt) Cahill enlisted his producing help for his film along with Payne’s Sideways partner Michael London. King of California bears Cahill’s own stamp however--a combination of terrific visuals that often make wry satiric statements deftly melded with an assortment of memorable characters and situations. Perhaps his biggest strength is in the casting of the film in his choice of the two talented actors who bring a believability and sense of real family ties to their roles. With King of California Cahill begins what looks to be a long and beautiful friendship with moviegoers who love to be transported to interesting and funny places.
Lucy (Ashley Judd) is a small town girl just getting by with her small-town job and small-town roommate. Relationships are forgettable to her mainly because she tries to sneak out before her lovers even wake up. But Cal (Jeffrey Donovan) wants more than a one night stand. He actually cares encourages her to stay for breakfast and maybe even have a conversation. This is all new for Lucy. Someone actually cares about her feelings? How could that be when she doesn’t even care about her own? It changes her approach to all her usual routines--her boss (Stacy Keach) her family and her church. But positive change has a hard time sticking and old habits threaten to ruin Lucy’s progress. That’s about as far as we can stretch this plot description. Really it’s just sleeping around trying to stay faithful and open and going about small-town life. It’s really slow or you could call it deliberate if you’re being kind--so you’d better love promiscuous drunks to spend 90 minutes with them. Judd gives her most powerful performance in decades since her debut performance in the indie film Ruby in Paradise. She may not be playing a suicidal cutter in Come Early Morning but she gets to show real emotional pain. She cries yes but what’s really going on with her self-esteem is much more subtle. An awesome supporting cast makes sure Lucy exists in a real inhabited world. Keach is an honorable boss who hopes against hope that maybe Lucy will pick up and follow him to bigger and better places but kind of resigned in the knowledge that people don’t leave their nest. Laura Prepon (TV’s That ‘70s Show) plays Lucy’s roommate as spunky as small- town folks get but never in an obnoxious way. Diane Ladd plays what may be Lucy’s future a bitter old woman taking crap from a sexist grump. These kinds of people really exist and these actors portray them as slightly complicated people considering the simple examples they are meant to serve in the film. Donovan sure makes Cal a lovable guy and you almost root for him to find someone more stable than Lucy yet he’s never a pushover just an honest good soul. Actor-turned-director Joey Lauren Adams (Chasing Amy) really loves the small-town setting so she lets the camera linger on loving establishing shots. It creates a believable world of folks in their routine. She cast perfect supporting players to beef up the star vehicle and really just lets them go. Some are familiar faces professional enough to tone down any personas they may have. Others are unknowns who bring more authentic color outside of Hollywood. The story gives them all quirks to show but a lot of it is just effective casting. There is nothing flashy about the style of Come Early Morning. It’s definitely an indie in the vibe of people sitting around talking but there are no extended diatribes á la Kevin Smith. Come Early Morning is focused on moving the characters’ emotional journeys forward. That’s exactly what Adams should be doing in serving this rural relationship drama. If given a subject with broader appeal or a killer hook Adams could surely have a long career behind the camera.