Starring: Amy Brenneman, Valentina de Angelis, Joan Allen, Sam Elliott, Jim True-Frost. Rated PG-13.
Campbell Scott has always been attracted to off-beat,
character-driven dramas, the kind that fly far beneath the Hollywood radar
until some indie filmmaker snaps them up and takes a chance. Sometimes, the
gamble pays off: Scott’s directorial debut, Big Night, a tale of two Italian restaurateurs struggling
under the weight of their own ambition, had a sharp ear for dialogue and a true
sense of compassion for its floundering heroes. His third feature, Off
the Map, shares those qualities, but unlike
Big Night, it never establishes
any kind of rhythm. Joan Ackermann’s plodding screenplay gives its maverick
characters plenty to say, but not a whole lot to do.
Then again, what’s there to do
when you’re living in the
middle of the New Mexico desert, effectively removed from society? Charley (Sam
Elliott) slips into severe depression, weeping his dreary days away, while
Arlene (Joan Allen) enjoys gardening in the nude. Their ultra-precocious
11-year-old daughter, Bo (Valentina de Angelis), decides to apply for a credit
card – not exactly a high-risk proposition, since there aren’t many strip malls
in coyote country. But the family isn’t isolated enough that it hasn’t escaped
the attention of the IRS, and when an agent arrives to inquire about Charley’s
curious lack of income-tax returns, things look to get interesting.
The agent, William Gibbs (Jim
True-Frost), is hardly the
type to focus on the bottom line. Rather than scrutinize the family’s finances,
he identifies with their quiet desperation and, after awkwardly declaring his
love for Arlene, opts to abandon his career with the government and join them
in the desert as a born-again artist. It’s a quaint turn of events that seems,
on some level, to invigorate Charley and Arlene, but the story meanders,
crawling toward a conclusion that resolves little, if anything.
And yet Off the Map
is sprinkled with quick-witted humor and dialogue that, at times, can be
profoundly moving. Elliott infuses his character with an underlying dark humor,
a deft touch given Charley’s maudlin sensibilities, and Allen hits all the
right notes as a hard-boiled housewife determined to remain calm in the midst
of an emotional storm. But the movie, like its characters, seems oddly
disjointed, grounded by malaise and unable to bounce back.