FATHER OF INVENTION
Spacey plays infomercial king Robert Axel, a self-made billionaire whose larger-than-life persona allowed him to sell countless “fabrications,” combinations of practical items, like a hair drier that cuts hair. After a brief prologue, we meet Axel after spending eight years in federal prison after one of his products chopped off thousands of fingers. He’s got long hippy hair and a perpetual hangdog expression.
His ex-wife (Madsen) has married one of his cheerful fans (Robinson), all the while pouring millions of his dollars into a failed recording career. Daughter Claire (Belle) runs a non-profit women’s center, but harbors a big chip on her shoulder over Axel’s workaholic ways. In fact, nobody is willing to give him any respect, a running joke that gets old.
Axel gets an idea for a new product – a wristwatch media player that doubles as “virtual leash,” complete with GPS, and much of the film concerns his efforts to raise $5,000 to build a prototype. Watching him try to get his mojo back is only moderately satisfying as the movie seems built around the need to keep kicking him. Even though she keeps treating him like dirt, Claire allows him to stay on her couch, and her roommates begin to connect with him. Least likely is his budding friendship with militant lesbian Phoebe (Graham).
They play video games, she helps him pick out hip clothes and form a tentative attraction. It’s not much, but at least Graham’s scenes seem genuine as opposed to the rest of the characters, most of them drawn in crayon. Madsen and Robinson sleepwalk through one-note roles, and Belle looks perpetually constipated; but Knoxville (Jackass) acquits himself well as the seething manager of a Walmart knockoff. He’s so burned by life’s disappointments, that he can barely contain his disgust. It’s a finely-calibrated comic performance, likely because all of his scenes are with Spacey, who can play rascally in his sleep, given the chance.
It’s too bad Krane and Cooper never realized the comedic and dramatic potential of their own characters and actors. It might have been something to have Axel so devilishly devoted to getting back on top that the Big Lessons would spring organically like weeds. Instead, the primary moments of levity are saved for people crashing into things and getting kicked in the balls.
FATHER OF MEDIOCRITY: It’s worth pointing out that Krane has written all of two scripts, but has produced nearly 50 movies, nearly all of them critically reviled. Oddly, his name appears on 15 John Travolta flicks – most of the really bad ones – including the howler Battlefield Earth (2000).
(Anchor Bay Films)
— DENNIS WILLIS