In the overcrowded pantheon of bad movies, there are interesting failures, prideful and pushy in their aspirations, and there are wispy disappointments that hew so meticulously to formula their creators might have thought they were making soufflés (or cooking meth).
With its small, wayward ambitions, director Andrew Fleming’s “Barefoot” lies between those extremes, though it leans toward the latter. The hollow core of this dreadful romantic dramedy is Jay Wheeler (Scott Speedman), the screw-up son of a wealthy Southern clan. Though he seems to have a college degree, Jay works as a custodian at a psychiatric institution in Los Angeles, blowing his meager wages – and the cash he borrows from a scary mook who might as well be called Johnny Loanshark – on strippers and sports bets.
Though he’s introduced as a stubbly lothario of the “wham, bam, later, ma’am” school of seduction, Jay reveals himself to be a hooker-lover with a heart of gold when he rescues a new patient, Daisy (Evan Rachel Wood), from harassment. Later, he’s eager to help this vulnerable Raphaelite beauty make her escape from the clinic, especially if that means he can take her to his brother’s wedding. Once there, Jay intends to ask his father for help paying off his gambling debts, while Daisy will pose as the good woman who’s finally turn his life around.
Daisy is supposed to be crazy – why else would she be committed against her will? – but first-time writer Stephen Zotnowski gives her a clinical case of the stupids instead. En route to Louisiana for the nuptials, she forgets how to flush a toilet just because she’s on a plane, and later, she claims she never learned to operate a motor vehicle because “driving makes you pregnant.”
Daisy isn’t just a ditz: she’s so implausibly clueless she sometimes seems to have wandered in from some body-swap movie where a five-year-old girl wakes up to find her twentysomething older sister in the mirror. Wood’s performance is mostly vocal (Daisy’s a baby-talker) though she certainly outshines her co-star Speedman, who might pass for Hugh Jackman if the “Wolverine” star were suddenly bereft of charisma, intensity, presence and grace.
After their charade of coupledom at the wedding falls apart, the two make their way back to California in a RV Jay steals from his father. Not having yet completed his redemptive arc, he tries to ditch Daisy at one point, but returns for her when he thinks about how cold her naked feet must be in the bus station — hence the oblique title. Such kind consideration is one of the many unacknowledged pretty-girl perks enjoyed by unstable women who look like Wood, since there’s no way jerky Jay would bother with her otherwise.
Their road trip home allows the pair to get to know each other, and for Jay to draw out why Daisy wound up at the hospital. (It involves an abusive childhood, which neither explains nor justifies the monumental foolishness she displays in earlier scenes.) Watching Daisy blossom into a more-or-less normal girl with her new friend’s encouragement is the greatest joy the film has to offer, so it’s a substantial letdown when her well-meaning but furious doctor (J.K. Simmons) orders her back in his ward, from which Jay is now banned.
Meanwhile, the script loses interest in Jay and his soon-to-be-broken kneecaps entirely, conveniently resolving all his needs via dad ex machina.
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If Zotnowski meant to allude to “The Great Gatsby” by naming his central pair Jay and Daisy, the reference serves no other purpose than, perhaps, to provide reassurance that the screenwriter has indeed heard of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel.
Never cloying but rarely moving, “Barefoot” is also plagued throughout by witless jokes and an offensively simplistic view of mental illness. At least it offers two happy endings: Jay and Daisy get their requisite reunion, and this dumb, drippy dreck eventually ends.