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$5 a Day (2008)

What a setup: in a single day, Flynn (Alessandro Nivola, perhaps most recognizable from his turn in 2005’s Junebug) loses his job, loses his girlfriend (Amanda Peet), and learns his con-artist father, Nat (Christopher Walken), may be dying of brain cancer. Left with no one to turn to, Flynn reluctantly reenters Nat’s life, and what follows is a combination of a father-son bonding movie and a road movie. Unfortunately, neither movie is particularly good despite Walken’s always-welcome presence.

Ostensibly a comedy, the movie’s attempts at humor miss more than they hit. For instance, I found it amusing that Nat—who has abandoned a life of con artistry to devote himself to finding great deals and scams so he can subsist on only $5 a day—lives in a storage room under an Atlantic City rollercoaster, calling various radio stations under aliases to win concert tickets he can then scalp at a huge profit. Yet I never laughed at his car, a pink PT Cruiser bearing the Sweet ‘N’ Low logo, so he can get paid to drive rather than paying to own a car. The film wants us to laugh every time we see it (and we see it often on their cross-country trip to New Mexico), but the ridiculousness of its appearance didn’t stir my funny bone at all.

That’s the overall problem. $5 a Day has some funny bits, many of them having to do with Flynn resisting Nat’s lifestyle, but they’re mostly buried in a vast ocean of moments designed to elicit laughter that never comes. Like most road movies, it’s broken up into a series of vignettes as the pair travels across the country. These vignettes are designed to first show why Flynn hates Nat so much, and then bring the pair back together. Some of them work (notably a vignette in which Nat invades a corporate event for free food and Flynn needs to rescue him once partygoers learn the truth), but others fall flat. An extended sequence features Sharon Stone as a scantily clad sexpot, a childhood crush of Flynn’s who shows more affection to Nat. Nothing about this sequence works, either dramatically or comically. In a 90-minute movie, a 10-minute dead spot is a pretty big gulf.

The core of the conflict is this: after a lifetime of conning, Nat brought Flynn into the fold, then left him holding the bag when a con went bad. Flynn did time (discovery of his conviction is what gets him fired from his health inspector job in the opening scenes) and naturally resents his father. However, this conflict is resolved much too quickly and easily. Flynn is first shown as angry and annoyed, but he quickly switches over to amused and appreciative. Even though it’s sort of fun to see the two working together instead of against each other, the transformation occurs without any real explanation.

When Flynn returns to anger in the third act—after realizing his father’s real plan for dragging him to New Mexico—it’s never clear why he left that emotional state in the first place. The film tries to split the difference with a lazy device that finds Flynn frequently calling his ex-girlfriend and leaving long-winded, on-the-nose messages on her answering machine, while she looks on with a combination of sadness and apprehension.

If there’s any pleasure to derive from this film, it’s in Walken’s charming performance as Nat. He’s shown up in so many movies over the past decade as little more than a caricature of his quirky persona, so it’s hard to remember that he once won a well-deserved Oscar for a largely quirk-free performance. This is one of the few recent movies in which he’s appeared that has given him the opportunity to do more than a weird, funny cameo. From guilt about his duplicitous nature to pain over his longtime knowledge of family secrets Flynn learns on this trip, he makes Nat more than a kooky guy with a silly lifestyle. He also makes Alessandro Nivola—the ostensible anchor of the film—look bland in comparison. Granted, he’s the straight man, but he’s also not a terribly engaging one.

Director Nigel Cole made the winning British comedies Saving Grace and Calendar Girls, but his comic instincts don’t seem suited to this type of film. Though the film contains many well-composed shots, it lacks Cole’s normally strong wit and offbeat sensibility. The timing seems strangely off, which affects both the overall pacing and (most detrimentally) the success of the jokes. Maybe it was the budget constraints, or maybe Cole just didn’t invest much of himself in making the film. I don’t know for sure, and it would be unfair to speculate.

$5 a Day has its moments, but ultimately, the film is just too uneven to recommend. The laughs come too inconsistently, the arbitrary character changes make it hard to empathize, and the sluggish pacing makes everything seem a bit duller than it should. For Walken fans, it might be worth slogging through a so-so film to see his performance. Anyone else should simply avoid it.

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