Leave it to the shoestring-budgeted American independent-film movement to recognize the multivalent possibilities of a subject like "song sharking," that hoary music-business practice in which talent scouts hook up would-be singer-songwriters with studio time and a pile of unlikely promises, for a nominal, non-refundable fee. In Craig Zobel's Great World Of Sound, the sharks are Kene Holliday and Pat Healy—the former a skilled bullshitter with an inviting grin and thick cynical streak, and the latter a dweebish idealist who understands the reality of his job, but still thinks he might find a superstar. Holliday and Healy's bosses at "Great World Of Sound Productions" run them ragged, sending them on scouting trips across the southeast, while demanding they pay for their own hotel rooms and plane tickets. The salesmen end up in the same situation as their clients: in the hole before they even get started.
Zobel and co-writer George Smith fall into a few indie traps, like overemphasizing Healy's gradual moral awakening, and using credulity-straining coincidences to keep the narrative going. But those missteps are forgivable, because Great World Of Sound isn't really devoted to its own plot. It's more about spending time in real, unglamorous places with real, unglamorous people. Much of the movie is spot-on, from the patronizing orientation session Holliday and Healy suffer through (during which one of their new supervisors boasts that he has more than $13,000 in the bank) to the fried-cheese-and-buffalo-wing lunches they eat on the road. These are middle-aged and older men still struggling to act like grown-ups. At one point, Healy's boss even looks at his thick résumé and warns, "Constant motion is the new laziness."
Holliday and Healy make an amusing odd couple, each with their delusions, from Holliday's infatuation with the company-provided cell phone to the way Healy seems to think that drinking dark beer and dating an artist keeps him hip. Great World Of Sound is painfully specific about the music-scouting grind, which involves listening to a thousand moribund variations of the slop already on the charts, but it's even sharper—Tin Men and Glengarry Glen Ross sharp—about the lies salesmen tell themselves to get through the day. The bigwigs at GWS emphasize how they have to take money from the no-talents in order to subsidize the occasional genius they're bound to find. What they're doing isn't a scam, really—just a way of giving dreamers what they think they want, and making them pay for it.