Anchor Bay // 2011 // 93 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 10th, 2011
A world of ideas. A world of problems.
"All I need is one great idea."
Ten years ago, Robert Axle (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty) was one of the most recognizable faces on television. He was a professional "fabricator," a man who found nifty inventions and pimped them on the air in aggressive fashion. Alas, one of his inventions proved harmful and landed Axle in prison. Now he's a free man once again, but he's lost his family, his fortune and his dignity. When attempting to re-connect with his vain ex-wife (Virginia Madsen, Sideways) fails, he pays a visit to his estranged daughter (Camilla Belle, 10,000 B.C.). Reluctantly, she agrees to let Robert stay with her for a few weeks while he attempts to get back on his feet. Robert wants nothing more than to rebuild his life, but that's going to be a little trickier than he anticipated.
Trent Cooper's comedy/drama/satire/Lifetime Original Movie-ish Father of Invention just barely manages to work for two reasons: Kevin Spacey's persuasive performance, and the screenplay's willingness to treat his character like a real human being. Many moments in the film are tonally awkward, certain characters veer between convincingly flawed individuals and cartoonish stereotypes and the story is preposterous at times, but all of those problems can be forgiven (to some degree, at least) because the central character arc works. This is a potential disaster of a movie held together by the thinnest of connective tissue.
Spacey is the epitome of arrogant smarm (often intentionally, but sometimes otherwise), and we know everything we need to know about Robert Axle when we're informed that he's a TV pitchman played by Kevin Spacey. His confident, sleazy charm is on display for a full minute before he's thrown in the slammer, and the remainder of the film requires Axle to force-feed himself serving after serving of humble pie. Spacey expertly draws out the quiet humor in this material; signaling his subdued dismay at having to engage in such unpleasant activities as apologizing and caring about people. His inevitable journey to redemption is helpfully accentuated by his perpetually changing hair, as he gradually transforms from bedraggled hobo hair to scuzzy goatee to clean-shaven (I am reminded of a hilariously unsubtle moment in Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, in which Michael Douglas alerts us to the fact that he has re-embraced corruption by slicking his hair back).
There are plenty of reasons to dislike Father of Invention on paper, but I found the film modestly charming in spite of itself. Its good intentions seem sincere, the characters are likable even when they're thin and it moves along at an agreeable pace without ever overstaying its welcome. Yes, the moments of broad comedy don't fit with the larger story, but some of those moments (particularly the material involving Madsen and her new husband played by the wonderful Craig T. Robinson, and most particularly a song they perform together on the subject of kittens and sex) are entertaining enough to at least qualify as self-contained pleasures. Admittedly, some of them are not (such as the two unlikely scenes involving characters getting kicked in the nuts). Johnny Knoxville is unexpectedly appealing as the grumpy retail store manager who gets sucked into Robert's scheme, while Heather Graham turns in one of her better recent performances as an irritable lesbian gym teacher who strikes up an unlikely relationship with Robert.
Father of Invention arrives on Blu-ray sporting a sturdy 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. It's a good-looking film, and frankly I'm a little surprised that it's getting the straight-to-video treatment. Granted, I doubt it would have been a major hit, but it's accessible enough and features an A-list cast. I suspect someone placed a curse on Heather Graham, considering how often this has happened to her lately. Anyway, the level of detail is sharp, the color palette is generic but robust, black levels are solid and flesh tones are just about right. Nothing spectacular to see, but what's here looks good. Audio is also solid, with an appreciably nuanced score by Nick Urata blending rather nicely with the crisp dialogue. There's not much going on in terms of sound design, but the auditorium scene near the end is well-mixed. Supplements are limited to a brief making-of featurette.
This movie is ridiculous for many reasons, but one in particular bothered me: the invention that sends Robert soaring back into the black. I won't say what it is, but suffice it to say that if such an invention really would sell millions, it would have sold millions by now. It's a variation on those movies that provide original songs that we're supposed to believe are #1 hits, yet the tunes are nowhere close to being good enough to actually be a #1 hit (Christina Milan's numbers in Be Cool spring to mind).
There's no need to go out of your way to see Father of Invention unless you're a hardcore Spacey fan, but I found it a perfectly tolerable way to pass 93 minutes. It's not great, but it's more appealing than it ought to be.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13