Film Review – Spooner
Matthew Lillard is a talented actor who is unfortunately often overlooked. Despite a long career, he hasn’t received many opportunities to be the lead in a film, at least in part because he is known for playing over the top characters. It is hard to not think of some of the misses he has been involved with, most notably Scooby-Doo, but I would argue that he is usually the best parts of those films (his portrayal of Shaggy was certainly the best part of that film). Occasionally he has received an opportunity like SLC Punk—a project that has a lot more heart than people give it credit for—and he has proven that he can handle subtly and nuance.
Much as in many jobs, if you aren’t given the opportunities, you need to make them for yourself. As producer and lead actor in Spooner (2009), Lillard does just that. The film achieved early success a few years back when it premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival. It caught my attention at that point and made the festival circuit rounds for the rest of the year, but I was never able to see it. Sadly, it wasn’t picked up for a theatrical release and very easily could’ve faded into obscurity. Luckily I happened to stumble across the film while browsing new releases on Netflix streaming.
Spooner is the story of a socially handicapped man who is being forced out of his parents’ house on his upcoming 30th birthday. He is a failure at his job where he is the whipping boy of his boss, and he has failed romantically as his mother is trying to set him up with women, much to his chagrin. The day before his birthday, he meets a young woman who he quickly falls for, and tries to win her love. The name of the movie originates from the last name of Lillard’s character, or the nickname by which most people in the film refer to him.
The story isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. At its core, it is a boy-meets-girl story, and with a premise like that the film can only go so far as the leads take it. In that regard, the casting director deserves a lot of credit. Opposite Lillard they cast Nora Zehetner, who is one of the best seemingly unknown actresses working today. She has a wry style about her that makes her feel like a more indie version of Zooey Deschanel (or like Zooey Deschanel was five years ago), less quirky and more mysterious; her performance in Brick in particular stands out. She plays Rose Conlin, a visitor in town and someone who has saint-like patience, apparently, as she interacts with Spooner.
The supporting casting is strong, too. Most notable is the reteaming of Lillard with Christopher McDonald, who portrays his father. The pair previously had portrayed the same relationship in SLC Punk, and they have a natural chemistry even in dysfunctional situations that is completely believable. One of the more interesting additions to the cast is Mark Boone Junior, most notably from Sons of Anarchy, who usually portrays tough guys in movies but here is playing a very low-key hotel manager/barber. It is a small role, but it is so against type that it really makes it that much more prominent.
The comedy in this movie is driven by awkward moments. There aren’t any laugh out loud moments, and honestly at times it is painful to watch. Lillard’s character is a nice guy who never fully has learned to adapt to the world around him and it leads to many frustrating moments. The main problem with the film is the romance storyline. Even overlooking some of Spooner’s peculiarities, it is hard to understand why Rose could fall for someone so fast. Though she has some of her own issues, they pale in comparison to Spooner’s. It is at times difficult to even know how to feel, as you are rooting for the leads to get together in the end, yet Lillard’s character behaves like a stalker.
Whether or not you like the storyline, the film feels very well produced. The cinematography is beautiful and takes advantage of the California locations they shot on. The film is the second feature from Drake Doremus. Overlooking any shortcomings in the plot, you get the sense that he is a very capable director. And since this film, it appears that Doremus’s stock is on the rise, with the release of his most recent film Like Crazy having gathered a good amount of attention.
Spooner is one of those films that will make you laugh, cringe, and think, but ultimately one viewing is probably enough. Given the talent involved in this project this might be considered failure. I don’t think it is fair; I think it is more of an issue with aspiration and directions. Character pieces are always a tough sell…you either buy in or check out.
Final Grade: B-