Despite their burgeoning cultural clout, American independent films generally have gotten so repetitive, so predictable, so negligible that you could sum them up in yearbook citations: Most Original Recipe for Alternative Families, or Most Likely to Succeed on Cable. The Big Squeeze, a four-handed caper movie set in Latino Los Angeles, wants to be dubbed Ms. Congeniality. But its air of humor fails to precipitate any laughter, and its story harks back to the original Latin, as in deus ex machina. Lara Flynn Boyle plays Tanya, who tends bar to support herself and her unemployed husband, Henry (Luca Bercovici), an ex-baseball player with a damaged knee who'd rather pray for recovery than look for work. A faithful wife, Tanya deflects the come-on of a hustling drifter, Benny (Peter Dobson), and resists the admiration of a love-struck gardener, Jesse (Danny Nucci) -- until she learns that Henry secretly banked a $130,000 disability settlement that they intended to share. Because a simple divorce is out of the question -- Henry's a maniacally devout Catholic -- she moves in with Jesse and decides to get Benny's help to filch her cut of her spouse's fortune. Melodramatic complications ensue when Benny signs Jesse up for a gardening job that's actually part of Benny and Tanya's money-grabbing scheme, and Tanya falls in love with Jesse.
Writer/director Marcus De Leon's script puns on "plot" as in "intrigue" and "plot" as in "a small area of planted ground." Soon after Benny hires Jesse to tidy up the greenery in Henry's favorite churchyard, a magnolia tree blessed by righteous Father Sanchez (Sam Valhos) takes mysterious, giant leaps of growth. The tree attracts attention to the church, which needs $136,000 for a city-ordered retrofit. Unfortunately, as a writer, De Leon doesn't know how to speed up the development of his story -- he bogs down in prolonged, flaccid setups. And as a director he crosscuts jumpily among his characters, resorting to promiscuous Steadicam, occasional odd angles, and splashes of overripe color to camouflage the dearth of visual or narrative invention. De Leon expects Tanya's emotional flux to engage us, Benny's scam artistry to amuse us, Jesse's poetic longings (he both raises and paints flowers) to call on our higher natures, and Henry's hypocrisy and brutality to get our bloodlust going. He hopes to stitch the four of them into the multihued fabric of life in and around the Hispanic neighborhood of Highland Park, shooting in locations that range from the good padre's old Spanish mission to the concrete bed of the L.A. River. The filmmaker, though, hasn't figured out how to pull us into this world; we know we're just drivin' through. Even the perky soundtrack, featuring music by Mark Mothersbaugh (a mainstay of Devo) and cover songs and new numbers by the Iguanas, ultimately puts a viewer into limbo; when you hear snatches of "Guantanamera," or when "Crimson and Clover" provides the background to a couple of love scenes, you wonder which character has tuned the AM to a Casey Kasem golden oldies countdown.
Of course we should be thankful that we're on a drive-through and not a drive-by, as in a typical post-Tarantino street indie; De Leon is gentle to a fault. What's admirable about his movie is its attempt to achieve a benign, accepting vision of the middle-to-lower urban depths. In one of the better episodes, some bar guys rib Jesse about his menial labor, and smooth-talking Benny comes to the taciturn gardener's rescue, praising the crimson and saffron of Jesse's roses; the tension is playful, almost cheerful. I wasn't surprised to learn that De Leon modeled his yarn about Highland Park on John Steinbeck's gratifying entertainment Tortilla Flat, an earthy tall tale about the paisanos of Monterey. (Naming the anti-hero Benny could be an homage to the title figure of A Medal for Benny, Steinbeck's informal film sequel to Tortilla Flat.) What Steinbeck says about morality in Tortilla Flat also applies to The Big Squeeze: "It is astounding to find that the belly of every black and evil thing is as white as snow. And it is saddening to discover how the concealed parts of angels are leprous." Steinbeck, a lifelong lover of King Arthur, turned a shantytown into a mussed-up Camelot and its inhabitants into baggy-pants Knights of the Round Table, allowing them to cast deeper shadows than they might in ordinary local color or social realism. There are miracles lurking in the background of The Big Squeeze: Benny carries a diamond necklace that bounces in and out of the action like a lucky and unlucky charm, and God himself takes part in the climax. But what you see of De Leon's characters is what you get. As Tanya, Boyle (of Twin Peaks and Red Rock West) evinces an appealing, low-key wariness in her solo scenes (you can tell that she's stunned by life, but also that it's no big whoop); elsewhere she seems hesitant and stiff. Dobson, the blustery husband in The Frighteners, gives Benny a blow-dried unctuousness that coaxes only a few smiles, and Nucci, who brings off the role of a melting-eyed male ingenue, generated more energy in his showcase scene in Eraser. For undiluted exuberance I prefer Teresa Dispina as a good-time gal named Cece, Tanya's bar- and Benny's bedmate: If they all fall into conventional molds, Dispina at least fills hers with tequila.
The Big Squeeze falters on the simple level of a street-corner whopper: Dispina aside, it's a zest-free zone. De Leon aims for magic realism, but neither his magic nor his realism is persuasive. As the fate of Tanya, Benny, Henry, and Jesse collides with the public's booming interest in the church, De Leon hopes to blend mysticism and irony the way Steinbeck did in Tortilla Flat's funniest moments. "A mass is a mass," said one of Steinbeck's paisanos. "Where you get two bits is of no interest to the man who sells you a glass of wine. And where a mass comes from is of no interest to God. He just likes them, the same as you like wine." De Leon doesn't have Steinbeck's gift for unforced gutter wisdom. (MGM's 1942 hit film of Tortilla Flat, with Spencer Tracy and John Garfield, didn't either.) When Father Sanchez says that Benny may be the vehicle of divine power, he's as full of sanctimonious wishful thinking as Henry, who says that God moved his hand when he slapped Tanya around. The Big Squeeze lacks back-alley grace or folkloric poetry. No Tortilla Flat, it's just another flat tortilla.
The Big Squeeze opens Friday, Sept. 6, at the Lumiere in S.F. and the Shattuck in Berkeley.