Thursday, May 15, 2014

Griffin Dunne seizes the day (& the film) in Justin Schwarz's dysfunc family pic, THE DISCOVERERS

What a year it's been for Griffin Dunne -- whom those of us of a certain generation probably best remember for An American Werewolf in London and After Hours. This actor has never stopped working in film and TV, though there was a period from around 1995 through 2000 that we saw very little of him. This year, already, he's back in spades, giving two terrific performances in one good film -- THE DISCOVERERS, under consideration here and in which he plays the lead -- and another absolutely splendid one: Rob the Mob, which opened this past March and in which Mr. Dunne, in a choice supporting role, plays one of the most memorable employers in film history to the two leading characters.

Justin Schwarz, the fellow pictured at right who both wrote and directed The Discoverers, had the weirdly amusing idea of conflating a typically broken American family with Americana of another bizarre kind -- the sort that recreates famous events from our country's history as though they were happening right now (you know: Civil War battles and the like). In this case, it's playing out a piece of the famed journey taken by explorers Lewis and Clark, which began outside of Pittsburgh and then continued westward.

Mr. Dunne, above, plays Lewis Birch, a professor, author and historian, working on a mammoth book about the slave who accompanied the Lewis & Clark expedition. Divorced, with two high school/college aged kids -- son (Devon Graye, below, left, of the recent 13 Sins) and daughter (Madeleine Martin, below, right, of the recent Refuge) --  dad and children are about to take a planned vacation when life intrudes -- in the form of an unexpected phone call from a brother informing our hero of major problems with the family's mom and dad. (Yes, this sudden phone call is practically verbatim of what happens in yesterday's film -- A Short History of Decay.)

Mom is gravely ill, while Dad, it seems (grandpa to the kids), has gone a bit 'round the bend. As played by Stuart Margolin, below, right, he's both comic and sad, a figure of fun -- until he finally becomes an angry and very real person (and problem). The theme of "exploration" -- as done by history's famous duo, and now the rather silly re-creators of this event, against that of our Lewis Birch, who must do some real exploration of his own to discover who the hell his children are -- is handled pretty well, if stated a little obviously by the filmmaker. Fortunately, Schwarz is helped enormously by his talented cast.

This would include some smart women, as well as our leading men: Cara Buono (below, left), Becky Ann Baker (second left) and Ann Dowd provide ace support, while the always dependable David Rasche, as the near-lunatic in charge of the re-creation, provides plenty of laughs.

On a journey like this one, the destination is never really in question. Rather it's the events along the way that make or break the movie. These are oddball, interesting and funny enough to carry us along. The daughter's encounter with two younger, over-sexed boys in a pharmacy is simply hilarious (Ms Martin is at her adorable/ironic best here), while the son's rapturous encounter with the pretty young daughter of the Rasche character (Dreama Walker, above, right, and below, left) helps bring things together.

Initially quite low-key, offering more sadness than jollity, the movie takes off into something more comic and strange once the expeditions begin, and there is one scene along the way between Lewis and another character that absolutely nails America's current view of race. While there's much to enjoy in the movie, I'll wager you'll find Mr Dunne's sidelong glances, raised eyebrows and wry humor the biggest reasons to discover The Discoverers.

The film opens tomorrow, Friday, May 16, in New York City at the Village East Cinema and in Los Angeles on May 30 at the Arclight Cinema, Hollywood.  You can see other currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, by clicking here.

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