The fashion police arrested Judge William Lee for exposing his white legs after Labor Day.
Don't judge a man until you've spent a night in his pants.
The dysfunctional family comedy The Night of the White Pants marks writer-director Amy Talkington's first feature-length effort and it's an admirable achievement given the production's low-budget constraints. This tale, set in Dallas, Texas and its indie music scene, receives a big boost from the strong acting talents assembled. With a little more polish to the script, this would have been a little gem.
Facts of the Case
Dallas business tycoon Max Hagan (Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton) is having a bad night. Recovering from a heart attack and the sale of his company, he's also in the middle of divorce proceedings with his second wife. On the night when his daughter Beth (Selma Blair, Hellboy) brings home her punk rocker boyfriend Raff (Nick Stahl, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) for dinner, Max loses possession of his house. With nowhere to go, Max accompanies Raff—who is also a part-time marijuana dealer—on a night of sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, and a little breaking and entering too.
The reliable British actor Tom Wilkinson (Cassandra's Dream) puts in a nice comedic performance as the down-on-his-luck millionaire. He's a charming old guy trying to hang on to his crumbling world. When we first meet him, Max still owns his big house where he lives with his sister Lolly (Geri Jewell, Deadwood), who is impaired by cerebral palsy, and his drug-addicted son Millian (Fran Kranz, The TV Set). Max continues to ignore the legal papers that he's been served and he barely has the energy to get dressed in the morning. But note how he puts on an apron in lieu of pants before answering the door. The man still has some dignity. As he spends the night cruising around the city with Raff, Max learns to cut loose. Horny and high, he remains a charmer behind slightly crazed eyes.
The problem, however, is that Max is a very likeable character throughout the movie. Introduced in a voice-over narration, we're told that Max was a typical rich asshole who only cared about his big house and trophy wife until his health and fortune changed. Consequently, the character's biggest transformation has already occurred just as this story is beginning. Viewers who have seen Wilkinson in Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla know the actor can play a villain who invites our scorn and pity simultaneously. In The Night of the White Pants, he's not required to display that same range so Max's renaissance is a pretty modest journey over the course of this movie.
With consideration to the budgetary and logistical restrictions of the production, Amy Talkington crafted a story that sticks to her locale. Dallas is her hometown and Talkington makes good use of real locations, including her mother's house as the Hagan family's home. Many favors and freebies were wrangled and the movie owes a lot of its rich, convincing detail to the goodwill of the community. The independent music scene is also close to the director and she makes good use of pre-existing source music on the movie's soundtrack. However, her characterization of Raff as a punk rocker with a "screw everything" attitude is unconvincing.
Nick Stahl is good as a young musician trying to find his big break. He sells some pot on the side but he also has an idea for a legitimate business. That he makes an honest effort to get along with Beth's family makes him a very likable, if slightly dull, character. The shortcoming of the character is that he's not a very threatening element to Max's world. We know right away that Max will benefit from Raff's influence and vice versa. Raff also doesn't appear to be desperate or daring enough to be a pot dealer. Where Talkington takes her biggest misstep is the portrayal of Raff's band. After establishing Raff as a punk rocker and hearing his band mates explain the punk scene to Max, when we finally hear them perform, their sound turns out to be very pop-rock safe. Admittedly, I've never attended a club act in Dallas, but you'd have to really open up the "punk" label to include Raff's band. Looking past these qualities that don't ring true in Raff, Stahl and Wilkinson play off each other nicely. The surprise in this comic pairing is that the young dude is the straight man.
The movie was shot on video and the transfer to DVD is quite good. There is a warmer color bias favored throughout the movie but there is good detail in the image even in dimly lit scenes. The picture is a touch on the soft side but is otherwise clean. The 5.1 surround mix is strong but doesn't add much dimension to the audio track. The dialogue and main sound effects are clearly presented from the front. Music and environmental sounds are directed to the surround speakers.
Talkington provides a good commentary track to accompany the movie. She talks about the evolution of the production and how she convinced Wilkinson to sign on. There's a good balance in her talk between logistical details of shooting and creative decisions that shaped the story. The "About the Music" feature jumps to specific scenes when source music is used on the soundtrack and displays the song credit for the respective bands. There's also the standard collection of deleted scenes, making-of featurette and a theatrical trailer to round out the supplements.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It isn't easy to make a movie under the best conditions, but Talkington's low-budget debut feature demonstrates strong and confident filmmaking skills. She makes good use of the resources she's given and the result is a handsome and detailed production that features some good Dallas locations. Though I feel her story is too "safe," it may be the sensibility that appeals to other viewers. Aside from the language and drug content that earned it an R rating, the brand of light dysfunction in this movie could be suited to broader family viewing. The mild sex and drugs references make this the kind of wild and crazy night you can bring home to meet your mother.
Raff's voice-over narration states, "It was one of those nights when crazy shit that just cannot be explained happens." Disappointingly, that's a promise that doesn't pay off. By the standards of the average wild and crazy night in the movies, Max's adventures are really quite tame. The story lacks a convincing level of danger and it never feels like anything is put at risk. The role of villain is given to Max's greedy soon-to-be-ex-wife Barbara (Janine Turner, Northern Exposure) but she isn't given much to do besides pacing around an empty house looking irritated. (It's nice to see Turner on screen again, though, and she's perfect in the part of a trophy wife.) As for Max's pants, they play a negligible role in the action. The title, like Raff's intro narration, gets your attention but doesn't deliver the goods.
Based on the strong performances and Talkington's confident direction, we'll grant The Night of the White Pants early parole.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Director's Commentary
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