Film noir laced with black comedy is one of the hardest cinema styles to pull off. For a first-time director, it's even daring, since you're starting your career with a lemon if the twists and gags of your weird little mystery don't connect.
The Coen brothers did it on "Blood Simple," the film that inspired Jake Goldberger to try his hand with "Don McKay," an admirable attempt even if the film only works spottily.
"Don McKay" delivers plenty of wicked humor, thanks largely to the eager cast led by Thomas Haden Church, Elisabeth Shue and Melissa Leo. But the laughs come in disjointed fashion, the film unfolding not as a coherent story but an escalating spiral as each character one-ups the next with crazier and crazier revelations.
Haden Church, also an executive producer on "Don McKay," has the title role, a school janitor quietly going about his business until one day receiving a letter from his teenage sweetheart, Sonny (Shue), the love of his life he hasn't seen in 25 years.
Don rushes back to his hometown, where Sonny tells him she's dying and wants to spend the rest of her short life with him. If that's not a strange-enough way to rekindle ancient romance, Sonny's live-in nurse, Marie (Leo), behaves more like a warden, and Don's ex is continually hazy and changeable on the details of all the years since they parted.
Suspicion and strangeness mounts as Don encounters an old friend (Keith David), Sonny's jealous doctor (James Rebhorn), an amiable thug (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and an inquisitive taxi driver ("Blood Simple" co-star M. Emmet Walsh).
Secrets are revealed, but too quickly
Virtually everyone is hiding something, and Goldberger is stingy about revealing anything for much of the way. It becomes an endless tease, with Don trying several times to walk away (and many a viewer probably thinking of following him).
When "Don McKay" finally spills its secrets, they come in a torrent so rapid that the movie lapses into silliness just as the suspense is supposedly peaking. The climax remains very entertaining, but it's more of a film-noir spoof ending that feels too madcap after the long, nearly static setup Goldberger maintained early on.
Along with his deliriously randy Academy Award-nominated role in "Sideways," "Don McKay" showcases Haden Church's enormous comic range. Something just looks right about Haden Church in his janitor jumpsuit, pushing an industrial floor buffer. Either he has an everyman gift of carriage — attuning his body language to the role — or he's got another calling if this acting thing doesn't work out for him.
Past Oscar nominees themselves, Shue and Leo don't share many scenes together, but they're both so funny and fickle that it would be great if some bright filmmaker such as Goldberger wrote a sharp "Thelma & Louise"-style buddy flick for the two of them.
Goldberger already has a next project, a coming-of-age story he's writing and directing. While "Don McKay" never quite comes together, it's a sign of a coming talent on film.