January is leftovers season, and not just for those of us who are trying to empty the last of the holiday ham and the sweet potato surprise from the refrigerator. Barely reheated and making its way to the big screen (and video-on-demand) is “Roadie,” an earnest indie drama that dishes out a casserole of low-budget movie tropes seasoned with Sundance clichés so deeply engrained you forgot you knew them.
Written by director Michael Cuesta (“L.I.E.”) and his brother Gerald, “Roadie” has the stench of freshman-year mandatory creative writing all over it, from its cribs of Eugene O’Neill (put the characters in a room with alcohol and other illicit substances so that awkward truths will be told) and Arthur Miller (working-class schlubs don’t get no respect) to an ending that’s embarrassingly, clangingly metaphorical.
Ron Eldard stars as Jimmy Testagross, who left Queens as a teenager to go on endless tour with Blue Öyster Cult as a roadie. After 26 years, Jimmy gets canned for reasons never explained, and with nowhere else to go, he returns to the house where his aging mother (Lois Smith) still lives.
While Jimmy claims he can only stay for a day or two before rejoining the band for a South American tour — and he tells everyone he manages the band and has written songs for them — he’s clearly at the end of his rope. Not helping matters is a chance encounter with Bobby (Bobby Cannavale), Jimmy’s high-school nemesis, particularly when it turns out that Bobby wound up marrying Nikki (Jill Hennessey).
Jimmy clearly still carries a torch for Nikki, who is still nursing her own musical aspirations by playing monthly acoustic nights at a local bar. So when Bobby and Nikki invite Jimmy to join them as they “party like rock stars” in a local motel before one of her gigs, the booze flows and the lines of coke get cut and the awkward confrontations begin.
All of which would have been fine if there were a single character who felt like an actual human being. It doesn’t matter that no one in the movie is particularly likable, but we should at least believe in their existence and care in the slightest what happens to them.
Having been given so little to work with from the Cuestas’ script, Eldard at least makes an effort to nail details like Jimmy’s beer gut and his dexterity at replacing guitar strings. (When Jimmy does this for Nikki, it feels like the one moment in the movie where he actually knows what he’s doing.) And Smith, for her part, takes this thankless, one-note role and does her best to fireman-carry it to relevance; she does get one of the film’s best lines when she refers to Jimmy as “my son, the rock-star…butler.”
Less able to make chicken salad under these circumstances in Cannavale, whose hilarious supporting role in “Win Win” is one of the underrated turns of 2011; this marks one of the worst performances from this talented actor, saddled as he is with the barely-constructed role of an aging bully. As for Hennessy, her character’s depth and talent has to be discussed by others, since we see precious little of either in her performance.
Movies like “Roadie” make you wish that Thomas Wolfe had written, “You could go home again, but please don’t, because it’s not going to very interesting.” In this case, anyway.