“Daltry Calhoun” probably is not the movie that will finally force us to consider Johnny Knoxville as a serious actor — it’s too slight, too unfocused.
But starring in the title role as a small-town Southern sod salesman who’s losing his business while gaining the daughter he hasn’t seen in years, Knoxville shows he has planted the seeds for a career that should develop into something varied and unexpected.
The debut feature from writer-director Katrina Holden Bronson allows him to show that he’s not just the guy from “Jackass,” and he’s definitely not the yee-hawing Luke Duke from “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Knoxville plays the part with a mix of down-home, good-ol’-boy charm and believable awkwardness, and some of the best scenes are the ones he shares with newcomer Sophie Traub as his daughter, June, a 14-year-old musical prodigy.
Too often, though, Bronson’s pacing is choppy, and she veers too wildly between wacky and poignant, a phenomenon we witness within the first few minutes.
“Daltry Calhoun” starts out in an intentionally madcap way that feels self-conscious and overbearing. Shot in a jumpy, hand-held manner as if it were a home movie, with June providing narration, it shows Daltry’s back story with May (Elizabeth Banks), the teenage mother of his baby girl. The dialogue includes screamed lines like, “You — you just shut that piehole!” as one of May’s big-haired relatives forces the young, useless Daltry to leave her alone for good.
Fourteen years later, Daltry is the biggest thing in Ducktown, U.S.A., having built up his business laying down sod for the most exclusive golf courses and planning a course of his own.
“Get high on grass — the legal kind,” is the catch phrase he utters with a big smile in local TV spots (and Knoxville does have a certain likability, regardless of the material).
May, who’s suffering from a terminal illness (one of several plot contrivances), tracks Daltry down and asks that he take care of their daughter after she’s gone. He and June get to know each other and find that they have a shared love of music — she plays the harmonica and the guitar and dreams of studying at Juilliard. What he doesn’t share with her is that he’s going bankrupt after a bad batch of grass ruins his reputation.
Enter the Australian soil expert (another plot contrivance, played by Kick Gurry) who also gives June ideas about blossoming into womanhood. Traub plays the role with a tomboyish sweetness as she fumbles through adolescence.
Juliette Lewis, meanwhile, just fumbles in playing Flora, the clingy sporting-goods store clerk who aspires to be Daltry’s girlfriend. Though, to her credit and to Banks’, both bring some heart to roles that start out as twangy Southern stereotypes.
“Think of me as, like, an ice cream cone and I’m melting,” Flora coos as she throws herself at Daltry. If only anything about the movie were that hot.