Regional film festivals can usually count on drawing a crowd with any movie that features recognizable stars, but once an indie film gets off the festival circuit and into the arthouses, the presence of a Nick Nolte or a Timothy Hutton isn't really a strong leading indicator. Put it this way: If a December-release movie starring two Oscar-caliber actors were actually good, wouldn't people be talking about it already?
Maybe that's too much skepticism to take into Off The Black, James Ponsoldt's small-scale debut film about lonely old umpire Nolte and his friendship with high-school pitcher Trevor Morgan. But it isn't like the movie radically defies any preconceptions. Early on, Ponsoldt establishes the premise that Nolte is depressed, disappointed, and possibly crazy, and that Morgan may be headed down that same path, thanks to his absentee mother and his perpetually distant dad, played by Hutton. Then Ponsoldt contrives to bring everyone together. After Nolte makes a controversial call at one of Morgan's games, Morgan retaliates by vandalizing Nolte's house and car. The umpire convinces the pitcher to repay him by pretending to be his son at a high-school reunion. The rest of the movie is spent elaborating on everyone's backstories and heretofore hidden feelings, mainly by having them ask each other leading questions.
Nolte almost makes it work. He has such a unique screen presence, and as he mumbles his way through awkward conversations with Morgan, he gradually evolves from a creepy bum to a likeably creepy bum. The problem—a persistent problem with Nolte's career, actually—is that it's hard for his co-stars to match his weird energy in any kind of natural way. And it isn't just the actors who fall out of step. Ponsoldt has David Gordon Green cinematographer Tim Orr bringing a warm, soft glow to nicely lived-in small-town locations, cramped with too-cheap, too-small furniture, but the stage dressing is about the only part of the movie that doesn't feel constructed. Even one of Ponsoldt and Orr's most memorable images—Nolte sitting on a motionless jet ski in the middle of a lake—is more ridiculous than poetic. It's the kind of shot a filmmaker dreams up spontaneously, and then tries to make fit. Off The Black's entire story is more of the same.