Bobby (James Le Gros) is stuck. Despite a journey that starts in Italy and ends in Hawaii, Bobby is stationary, passive, and numb. He’s working at a low-end Italian eatery that charges high-end prices. He’s divorced and living in a trailer for one. And he’s been working on a graphic novel about his life, a book he seems to have little interest in finishing.
Phoenix, Oregon, from writer/director Gary Lundgren, is equally stuck. Similar to Bobby’s graphic novel, Phoenix, Oregon is a movie that seems to be developing without any urgency to get anywhere. Yes, there are motivations: Carlos (Jesse Borrego), Bobby’s friend and chef who treats his pizza with such reverence he should have been snapped up by a better restaurant by now, wants to open up the abandoned bowling alley. Back in their youth, the bowling alley was a source of pleasure and triumph for Bobby and Carlos. Now, both have neither. So back to the well and back to youth they go.
There is also Tanya (Lisa Edelstein), the local wine rep and object of Bobby’s eye. She is playful and fun, but she also has an agenda. So does Al (Kevin Corrigan), the only bowling lane repair guy in the county, an oddly non-threatening and wildly unhinged man.
There really isn’t a threat to be found in Phoenix, Oregon. Bobby and Carlos both quit working for the man to follow their dreams. Obstacle: They don’t have enough money to pay for everything. They find a way and open their newly renovated bowling alley, only to fail through success.
All the while, Bobby believes that his life, and the lives of others, is being controlled by aliens. Phoenix, Oregon opens with a shot of the solar system, one that Lundgren returns to occasionally, notably dissolving from a shot of space to a cup of pour-over coffee — possibly a nod to the faraway galaxies brought to the doorstep in Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her.
You can see Bobby’s resignation to these extra-terrestrial puppet masters in his face: Always passive, never active. And why not? If you believe deep down inside you are nothing more than a pawn in somebody else’s game, you too would be waiting for the other shoe to drop. In the movie’s climactic image, Bobby succeeds after a string of successes and still cracks no smile. Behind him: the entire town of Phoenix jumps for joy. But the celebration is behind Bobby and out of focus. He’s not, and his face is a blank slate.
It’s a limitation of the script, and it hampers Phoenix, Oregon. Le Gros, Borrego, Edelstein, Corrigan, and the rest do decent work despite not being given much. Most of the characters are who they say they are. And those who aren’t telegraph their intentions similarly. It’s not one-dimensional, but Phoenix, Oregon is still flat and a little like Bobby’s blank face.
Written and directed by Gary Lundgren
Produced by Anne Lundgren, Luis Rodriguez
Starring: James Le Gros, Jesse Borrego, Lisa Edelstein, Kevin Corrigan, Diedrich Bader
Joma Films, Rated R, Running time 110 minutes, Plays the Dairy Arts Center Sept. 11–14.