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The Song Remains the Same 

Jackpot proves that karaoke movies are a bad idea even if you're a hip auteur

Wednesday, Aug 15 2001
Yay! Another karaoke movie! There's nothing quite like the on-screen capture of an activity whose sole enjoyment comes from active participation (and, usually, mass consumption of intoxicants before, during, and after such participation). Perhaps it's a challenge. Follow in the footsteps of a movie as maligned as Duets with something similar that's actually good, and praise must ensue. Rumor has it that Jackpot co-creators Mark and Michael Polish (Twin Falls Idaho) plan their next movie to be about a huge talking duck, to be followed by one about dreadlocked Scientologist aliens in platform boots.

Of course, it is possible to make an interesting movie about almost any profession if the story is solid. Steven Kloves' 1993 Flesh and Bone, for instance, was a good movie about a guy who stocks vending machines for a living; Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo was the amusing tale of a fish-tank cleaner; and The Matrix, in defiance of both Chain Reaction and Johnny Mnemonic, managed to spin a good yarn around a computer nerd played by Keanu Reeves. So perhaps it's unfair to dismiss out of hand any film about a karaoke hustler.

Or perhaps not. Jackpot may not be all that bad (frankly, neither was Duets), but it's a definite sophomore slump for the Polish brothers, whose debut earned them comparisons to David Lynch -- and for more than just the use of the word "twin" in the title. It's the old paradigm of novelists: The first novel is usually from the heart and semi-autobiographical, while the second is usually the worst, because the writer has exhausted his or her own experiences and has to make things up from scratch. Where Twin Falls was slow, brooding, and haunting in a manner that fit the subject matter -- the imminent death of one of the principal characters -- Jackpot is just slow and uneventful, like a cross-country Greyhound bus trip that never stops.

Beginning with a George Jones song played backward, Jackpot proceeds to show us karaoke hustler Sunny Holiday (Twin Falls associate producer Jon Gries, who also co-produced this), a balding, low-level celebrity who gets great amusement from typing "fuck you" into his kid's Speak & Spell. Sunny's hoping to transform his karaoke career into superstardom, and is headed for a big-money contest in Jackpot, Nev., "just south of Twin Falls, Idaho" (this in-joke gets way too cute when another character responds, "Twin Falls, Idaho? I know it well").

It soon becomes clear that there are three distinct timelines being followed at once. In the main one, Sunny and his manager, Lester (Garrett Morris, as good as he's ever been), wander the back roads of America scouring the bars for karaoke contests. In another, which may take place either beforehand or afterward, Sunny is in the midst of a tense dinner with his ex-wife, Bobbi (Daryl Hannah). And in the third, clearly set after the other two, Sunny is in an ambiguous court setting, hearing charges against him.

The divided timeline isn't the only obvious stylistic touch. Some scenes have an unseen narrator meditating upon the nature of silence or some similar profundity. A road sign reading "You Suck" materializes on the highway at one point. And the entire picture was shot on the new Sony 24P HD camcorder, which gives the look of film and the portability of video. The resultant movie has the rough-hewn style of a Dogme film without the usual poor resolution, and is almost cer- tainly the wave of the future, at least for indies.

All the stylistic flourishes would seem to indicate that there's more going on in Jackpot than meets the eye, but if there is, it's well hidden. The big payday in the town of Jackpot never materializes (much as the massive cash prize at the end of Duets was never awarded -- is this some kind of message about karaoke not being rewarding?). And when Anthony Edwards shows up in the film's last sequence, it seems as though we're supposed to know exactly who he is and why he causes Sunny to act suddenly in an uncharacteristic fashion. The press kit says he's Sunny's brother, but the movie doesn't make that clear in any way. Then the climax features one major character doing something that has been way beyond his means for the entire movie, with no explanation of why it no longer is. It feels as if huge chunks of explanation were hacked out by an overzealous editor.

In the meantime, the plot focuses on Sunny and Lester getting drunk, arguing, screwing up, and driving on to the next town. There are moments that resonate, notably a scene between Sunny and an anonymous fellow diner who turns out to be his father, and there are some moments of tension, as when Sunny is lured home by a white-trash waitress (Wings' Crystal Bernard, in the world's worst fake-perm wig) and is nearly seduced by her underage daughter Tangie (Camillia Clouse), whose idea of a blow job is based on an amusing misunderstanding.

Morris is extremely impressive, worthy of any acting award one might care to bestow on him. In a world of overdone SNL has-beens, why doesn't he get more work? Gries is adequate in a role Robert Duvall might have taken 20 years ago, but lacks that extra presence that would make his character's silence and quirkiness seem profound rather than vacuous. At the risk of belaboring a comparison, Paul Giamatti and Huey Lewis were both more compelling leads in that other karaoke film. Cool as they may be, the Polish brothers haven't hit a homer this time, although the overall quality of their work does indicate that you can't count them out.

About The Author

Luke Y. Thompson


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