A periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.
Welcome to the new weekly version of Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory. Instead of a monthly incarnation with three films that all but skipped the multiplexes en route to Netflix and Amazon Instant, Nathan Rabin will be writing up a single direct-to-DVD movie every week. The A.V. Club is eager for suggestions for this feature, and readers have been fabulous about making recommendations in the past. Please feel free to suggest possible future entries in the comments.
The first specimen under examination is Father Of Invention, a 2010 vehicle Kevin Spacey produced for himself about an arrogant master of “Fabrication”—cheesy gizmos that combine the functions of various devices and are sold via infomercials—who is sent to prison for “depraved indifference to human life” after one of his products ends up slicing off the fingers off hundreds of unfortunate customers. It’s a film about the humbling of an arrogant man that has thematic overtones for its star, who had a brief, shining moment of Oscar-lauded superstardom in the late ’90s. Then he crashed to the ground after a prolonged period of awful movies and hammy performances killed his career as an A-list leading man and relegated him to supporting roles in first-rate pictures and starring roles in barely released fare like this.
Spacey makes such consistently terrible choices that every time he delivers a performance in a film that isn’t overtly terrible, it feels like a comeback performance, even though he’s clustered a few of them over the past few years (Moon, Horrible Bosses, and Margin Call spring to mind). Father Of Invention perfectly illustrates why Spacey’s career has fallen to such a low state. The title says it all: Spacey thinks he needs to build an amazing new invention when what he really needs to be is a father to his child.
The film opens with Spacey delivering an infomercial spiel directly to the camera at the height of his character’s fame before flashing forward to him leaving prison with ratty long hair and a scraggly-mustache/unkempt-beard combo that makes him look like an insurance executive dressed up like I’m Still Here-era Joaquin Phoenix for a costume party. He is a bitter and broken man, but at least he has retained his flair for poisonous sarcasm and talking to other people like they’re emissaries from a deplorable lower species.
But if this character hates humanity, humanity hates him even more. Upon his release from prison, Spacey can’t even go to a convenience store without catching a beat-down from a clerk who lost a finger to one of his infernal contraptions. Then he learns that his gold-digging ex-wife (Virginia Madsen, who has been playing grounded earth mothers for so long that it’s a little jarring to see her play a broad, mean-spirited caricature of a deluded sexpot) has taken up with Craig Robinson (in a genially amusing performance that is the film’s sole mildly redeeming facet) who, in one of the many bitter ironies suddenly littering his life, is a big fan of Spacey’s.
In need of a familiar face, some kind words, and a little encouragement—or at least a place to sleep—Spacey moves in with his bitter daughter (Camilla Belle) and steps into a wacky sitcom populated by such laugh-track-friendly stereotypes as a rich space cadet (Anna Anissimova) with a head full of useless trivia and an angry lesbian coach (Heather Graham) who briefly makes out with him in spite of her ostensible sexual orientation and a complete dearth of chemistry between the two actors. If you think playing a one-note enraged-lesbian roommate is beneath Graham’s dignity, you should probably know her big moment involves kicking Spacey in the nuts for having the audacity to tinker with her fish tank.
Spacey’s schemer has gone from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, from commanding an empire of gizmos, gadgets, and doohickeys to pushing a mop around a Walmart-like superstore. He has been gifted the kind of humility that comes with having the universe smash your brains against the concrete repeatedly, but the world never stops kicking him when he’s down. Glowering store manager Johnny Knoxville fires him from a dispiriting job, Madsen has squandered the fortune she inherited in the divorce, and Belle gives him shit for trying to be an involved, committed father decades too late.
The world is cruel, but the well-lit, well-traveled road to redemption begins when Spacey cuts off the hair that makes him look like a murderous hobo and discovers the simple pleasures of playing in a park with an adorable moppet or banging on some plastic drums while playing Guitar Hero with Graham. In spite of the crotch-kicking nature of their early encounters, Spacey and Graham prove unlikely friends when she takes him to a hip retail spot to have him dudded as a proper hat-and-mustache-sporting hipster.
Spacey becomes convinced the billion-dollar idea that will catapult him back on top is a wireless child leash with all the cool features available in smartphones, but banks would be reluctant to finance a convicted felon even if the world wasn’t littered with mangled survivors of his defective products. He then sets out on two quests that sometimes feel complementary and sometimes feel antithetical: to redeem himself as a man and father by eschewing the glib narcissism of his old life as a titan of industry, and to secure financing for the new invention that will be his ticket back to the big time.
The closer Spacey gets to reclaiming both his soul and his spot high atop the Darwinian business world, the less he looks like a mentally ill homeless person and the more he looks like an Oscar winner with an expensive haircut and fancy suit. In Father Of Invention’s amusingly bogus final act, Spacey strikes up a business alliance with Knoxville (Who better to partner with than an angry superstore manager who recently fired you?) in order to get his wireless child leash off the ground.
The father of invention once again has a shot at the big time, but at what cost? The film intermittently flashes back to the halcyon era before Spacey’s staggering success as a businessman and unmistakable failure as a human being, when he was just a father and dad in a suburban paradise. This Norman Rockwell hokiness is represented by a good-luck drawing Spacey’s daughter scrawled onto construction paper with crayons.
Knoxville gives Spacey the good-luck drawing just before his big presentation, and hot damn if it doesn’t instantly right his straying moral compass and put him in touch with what really matters. In a speech pitched defiantly to the rafters, the star of Pay It Forward tells his audience about this contraption to keep constant tabs on children: “You know, the truth is it’s not always the kids who get lost. Sometimes it’s us. The grown-up. The parent. That’s certainly true of me.”
He’s talking about himself! He’s the one who got lost and needed an alternately glib and sentimental redemption story to set him back on course. Spacey reflects on being sent to jail for a solid decade for “depraved indifference to human life” when “what I’m really guilty of is gross negligence as a father. And so here I am. Giving you another Robert Axle fabrication.” In case there’s anyone in the audience who still thinks this guy is giving a sales talk about a mere gizmo he’s trying to launch, Spacey goes on to further explicate that the new device will be a mere “Band-Aid” that is “not going to solve the disconnect I have with my daughter. Or the disconnect any of us have with our kids.”
If I were in the audience at that moment, I would yell at the stage, “Boo! Come back when you have an invention, or rather fabrication, that solves the disconnect you have with your daughter and the disconnect I’m experiencing with my own children! Now that would be worth sinking a little cash in. Not this symbolically overloaded doohickey!” But that is not the kind of movie Father Of Invention is. This big closing speech encapsulates everything that’s phony and comically formulaic about the film. It wants to be a redemptive story about a man who learns what really matters in life, but it’s too enamored with canned uplift and big speeches for that redemption to feel legitimate, earned, or anything other than bogus.
Just How Bad Is It? Oh, it’s pretty dire.