Smiling Fish & Goat on Fire
directed by Kevin Jordan
(Stratosphere, 1999)

What's $40,000 get you in Hollywood these days? For most movies, not even a makeup artist for the star.

But Kevin Jordan, Derick Martini and Steve Martini turn 40 Grover Clevelands into Smiling Fish & Goat on Fire, an unassuming indie film that has its cliches and flaws but ultimately is much more satisfying than lots of big, bombastic drivel.

Not that there isn't enough drivel going around in Smiling Fish. The trio of writers has a weakness for some pretty inconsequential patter between Chris (the Goat on Fire of the title), his younger brother, Tony (Smiling Fish) and their girlfriends.

And there are some situations which are too obviously driving the plot, making a statement too glaringly, clunking in from left field.

But low-key performances by a well-chosen cast leave much of that awkwardness in the dust.

The Martini brothers and Jordan, who directs, have pulled together a group of actors -- including the Martinis -- which puts story ahead of star turns and histrionics. The result pulls Smiling Fish out of a couple of sentimental morasses, and past the points at which you really don't care what the brothers do, as long as they do something.

Chris and Tony are stuck at "neutral" in love, stuck at "park" in their careers. Chris is the responsible one, an accountant who's been back and forth with the same girlfriend, on again and off, since high school. Tony, an aspiring actor, would rather get high than rehearse for auditions, would rather charm a new woman than figure out what's going on with the one he's already got.

They're living together, Tony two-timing his girlfriend and Chris dodging his girlfriend's moods, when each meets someone new: Tony, a single mom with an aspiring actress for a daughter; Chris, an Italian animal-wrangler for the movie industry (this is L.A., after all).

Tossed into the mix is Clive, the uncle of Chris's boss, who Chris must pick up from the nursing home and take to work each day. There, Clive erects a tent over his desk to protect himself from fluorescent lights and does "B.S. work" while surrounded by mementos from his own film career.

Yes, some of the storyline really strains the imagination.

Clive becomes Chris's mentor in love and life, while the single mom and Tony begin a tentative romance egged on by her daughter.

What overcomes much of this "huh??" factor in the film are the actors. The Martini brothers have had a lifetime together in reality, and it shows. Their relationship as Tony and Chris rings true. Likewise, Christa Miller (The Drew Carey Show) sparkles as Kathy, Tony's love interest, and Rosemarie Addeo is alluring as Chris' infatuation, Anna.

But the character I wish had been the center of everything is Clive. Jazz musician Bill Henderson has the mix of independence, stubbornness, mystery and grace which makes Clive the most well-rounded character of the whole collection. As a man who broke into movies during segregation, and whose lifelong love affair is a counterpoint to Chris and Tony and their indecisiveness, Henderson is obviously the man here with decades of experience in the film and television industry. (His first role was as an uncredited "jivin' jack" in 1943's Moonlight in Vermont.)

His integrity as Clive prevents Smiling Fish from spinning off into a frothy confusion of 20-something love gone wrong.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 31 August 2002

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