Small Time is an appropriate title for writer-director Joel Surnow’s period piece dramedy, the type of movie whose meandering, loose-limbed structure and comparative lack of stakes inform a savvy viewer of the fact that it’s “inspired by true events” even without benefit of the opening credits title card. A father-son bonding tale squashed awkwardly up against a lightly humorous workplace tale, this amiable passion project commits no great offenses, but lacks the necessary tension and elicited emotional investment to pull in and sustain an audience much outside of the core fan base of the talent involved.
Set in the San Fernando Valley sometime after the 1970s but before the advent of cell phones, the film stars Christopher Meloni as Al Klein, a middle-aged divorcee who owns and runs a used car dealership with his best friend, Ash Martini (Dean Norris). When his teenage son, Freddy (Devon Bostick, tamping down the demonstrativeness of his older brother character in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies, but still showcasing a headstrong charm), decides he wants to forego college in order to become a car salesman like his father, Al is secretly moved. But Freddy’s decision upsets Al’s ex-wife, Barbara (Bridget Moynahan), who along with her second husband, Chick (Xander Berkley), has given her son the comfortable bubble of an upper-middle-class existence, expecting all the while little more than that he would continue his education and reach a little higher than the precarious, paycheck-to-paycheck, blue-collar lifestyle for which Al settled. While Freddy turns out to be a natural salesman, Al eventually has to consider cutting work ties with his son for his long-term benefit.
Small Time represents a personal tale for Surnow (24, The Kennedys). His father was a cold-call carpet salesman his entire life, and the younger Surnow worked with him for a half-dozen years into his mid-twenties. The script also had its genesis in an unproduced screenplay, reworked here, that Surnow penned with a college friend when he was only 21, years before he started working in television. These experiences help lend the movie a certain authenticity in a number of small details—from sales strategy banter and genial cons (in one sequence Ash wears a phony hearing aid and Al quotes an artificially inflated price, in order to give a customer the impression of getting a deal) to father-son friction over advertising and expansion potential.
But there isn’t a lot of what one would consider absorbing dramatic stakes, or even expressive consistency. (Having established Al as being so emotional over Freddy’s graduation that he cries at a TV weather report, it then makes no sense that he doesn’t cry when his son says, “I’d be proud to grow up to be like you.”) For every scene that offers up a sly surprise (Ash taking Freddy to a shady singles bar, or Al and Barbara separately drunk-dialing one another), there are usually one or even two that peter out or feel like padding. Various supporting characters are either wasted (Al’s new girlfriend, Linda, played by Garcelle Beauvais, is introduced only to be promptly ignored, rating all of two scenes) or poorly integrated, as with drunken mechanic Barlow (Amaury Nolasco).
Instead, Small Time surfs along on the appeal of Meloni and, to a slightly lesser extent, Norris, both of whom have considerable Everyman charisma. The latter’s whiskey-swigging guise will ring familiar with Breaking Bad fans, recalling as it does the ball-busting, family-time gregariousness of Hank Schrader. But it’s still a welcome presence here—so much so that one wishes that Surnow had perhaps ditched some of the ancillary din and chatter to develop Al and Ash’s lifelong connection as a stronger parallel arc to that of Al’s changing relationship with Freddy.
Small Time has modest insights around the edges, and an overall warm vibe. One merely wishes there was more memorable snap and bite to its platitudes and life lessons.
(Editor’s note: In addition to its theatrical release, Small Time is also available on iTunes and across VOD platforms.)
Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Playboy, Magill’s Cinema Annualand ShockYa, among many other outlets, as well as a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.
Director: Joel Surnow
Writer: Joel Surnow
Starring: Christopher Meloni, Dean Norris, Devon Bostick, Bridget Moynahan, Xander Berkley, Amaury Nolasco, Garcelle Beauvais, Kevin Nealon
Release Date: Apr. 18, 2014