Pete Smalls is Dead (Director: Alexandre Rockwell): Peter Dinklage plays K.C., a former Hollywood screenwriter who now runs a laundromat. Having moved to New York after his wife died, he has little time for his former life, preferring to spend time with his beloved dog Buddha. But after a loan shark kidnaps the dog and holds him as ransom for an unpaid debt, K.C. has to come up with $10,000 fast. At the same time, his former colleague Pete Smalls, a successful director, has just washed up dead on a beach, and his friend Jack is pestering him to go to the funeral. Only after Jack promises to get him the money does K.C. agree to return to L.A.
This highly-contrived premise is the set up for a shaggy dog film that is overstuffed with quirk and straining from the abundance of shopworn cliches it employs to reach its predictably happy ending. On one hand, it’s great to see Dinklage in a role that doesn’t constantly make reference to his size. But he’s burdened with portraying a character who hasn’t cracked a smile in ten years, and who doesn’t get to change that in the film. Another annoyance is the use of voiceover throughout, as if this were a film noir.
The structure and characters are much too reminiscent of The Big Lebowski, a film with a much better script and fresher performances. Rockwell has assembled a great cast, most of whom have appeared in his earlier films, especially In the Soup. Some of the supporting cast have fun, especially Steve Buscemi (in a blonde afro wig) and Michael Lerner, playing a couple of greasy producers. And Mark Boone Junior, in the dude role of Jack, reminded me at times of the late great Maury Chaykin.
In the end, the script just has too many twists for its own good. The quirky gang of pals that comes together to help K.C. out seems thrown together unbelievably. Stabs of pseudo-symbolism (butterflies, snow globes) are embarrassing, and the overuse of film techniques like the iris zoom are just annoying.
I hate to sound so down on a film that was clearly a labour of love for all involved. Rockwell seems like a genuinely nice man, and I’m sure his cast all did the film as a favour to him. But the story didn’t hold my interest beyond the half-hour mark, and some characters (esp. Seymour Cassel’s) seemed to be written into the script just so he could give one of his actor friends a role. It feels a bit like a reunion project with no real life as a film of its own.
Perhaps it was just K.C.’s (or was it Peter Dinklage’s?) gloom that permeated what was supposed to be a fun caper film. In any case, Pete Smalls is Dead. To quote one of the characters in the film, “he’s dead as a doornail.”
Here is the Q&A with director Alexandre Rockwell and stars Mark Boone Junior and Seymour Cassel from after the screening. Of note is the fact that Rockwell’s 87-year-old mother Svetlana lives in Montréal and was at the screening, sitting in the row right behind me. She asks Seymour Cassel a question that he spends quite a bit of time, uh, answering. Also of note was that Rockwell’s wife and daughter were sitting in the row behind me as well. His wife is Karyn Parsons, who played older sister Hilary on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.