First-time director Clark Gregg bounds sprightly between comic plot points like Victor’s job at an Americana theme park where he lusts after Ursula the milkmaid (Bijou Philips) and gets thrown in the stockades for cracking antediluvian lingo with his best buddy Denny (Brad William Henke)—a gag so hilariously done, I wanted to reread humorist George Saunders’ similarly brilliant CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. Meanwhile, Victor resents Denny’s romance with a stripper (Gillian Jacobs) and uncovers a potentially globe-shattering revelation about his birth father. (Hint: He walked on water.)
Still, though he’s got an ear for absurdist snark, Gregg’s adaptation of Palahniuk’s script isn’t much deeper than a pin prick—the sting fades, swallowed up by uncertain goodwill. It’s a disappointment for fans of an author who’s made his reputation wrapping humanist messages in anarchist’s comedy. Scenes where young Victor (Jonah Bobo) allows his mom to define what a normal childhood is, a mess that includes finding his picture on the back of a milk carton and bouncing between foster moms, are laid out for medium impact. Like an over-eater confessing that his mom starved him as a child, we know there’s a present-day psychological point to Huston’s callousness, but it isn’t until the last minutes that the two time periods find cohesion.
The film bobs around on a tide of misanthropy, occasionally surprising us with small moments of brilliance—like Denny’s approach to real estate and a fleet of senile grandmothers out for Victor’s blood. But Gregg makes the harmful decision to wind the wild plot threads around Victor’s romance with a shapely doctor (Kelly Macdonald) at the hospital where his mom lingers on, having little idea who he is. Macdonald had a small, but stirring role as Josh Brolin’s doomed young wife in No Country For Old Men. Here, she’s either been body-snatched or drugged—her doe-eyed, cow-brained scenes grind the movie to a halt when this clever trifle needs to outrun its flaws by sheer force of black-hearted will. As such, the best moments are unemotional throwaway gags like Victor’s online-arranged encounter with a high maintenance ball-breaker with fantasies of being overpowered by a stranger. When she realizes he’s wearing her tights, she snipes, “What kind of rapist doesn’t buy his own pantyhose?”