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Review: Quirky characters never find rhythm in feeble 'Arkansas'

Courtesy of Lionsgate


Clark Duke gets his shot in the directing chair with the southern-dixie crime caper “Arkansas,” an uneven and jumbled attempt at invoking Coen Brother level of ingenuity despite an all star cast of Liam Hemsworth, John Malkovich, and Vince Vaughn. It’s an impressive lineup considering Duke - best known for bits on “The Office” and “Hot Tub Time Machine” - doesn’t seem to have any major clout in Hollywood, yet he’s assembled a crack team for his directing debut. Supporting turns from Vivica A. Fox and Devendra Banhart help fill in the gaps, but despite their best efforts “Arkansas” is an ambitious endeavor that never lands on the correct balance, especially for the performers who can’t figure out how silly and campy they want to be.

Broken up into small chapters, “Arkansas” first major issue is the two lead performances. Clark and Hemsworth play Swin and Kyle, two strangers at the bottom of the drug food chain, doing their best to peddle dope across state lines for an unseen drug lord named Frog. Kyle, in his brooding and towering presence, is obviously the muscle, and Swin looks like an oddball who stumbled onto the wrong movie. It’s not uncommon for actors-turned-directors to cast themselves in their own projects, but the irony is Duke has never looked more out of his league in front of and behind the camera.

Enter Malkovich - the only actor who seems to understand the sarcasm to be in a movie on this level - who plays the snarky middle men of the entire drug operation. His character, Ranger Bright, uses his daily operations at the nearby park as cover; he hires in Swin and Kyle under new aliases, and sends them on periodic runs to Louisiana and Texas to push their product.

One of those missions, though, comes with a straggler, and brings some unwanted attention to Bright’s setup, and a druggie follows Swin and Kyle back to their park and unleashes an entire can of worms the two fellas were not looking for. This forces the two outcasts to step in and keep the drug biz afloat, despite having no idea who their bosses really are, aside from a girl named “Her” (Fox) who lives on a houseboat and calls the shots when Frog isn’t around.

Speaking of Frog, viewers early on are shown that Frog is actually a semi-retired junk peddler who spends his days pawning other folks’ trash and listening to the St Louis Cardinals on the radio and is played by Vince Vaugn. Duke and his co-writer Andrew Boonkrong try to invoke hastily inspired flashback sequences that showcase how Frog rose through the ranks to one of the South’s most notorious drug lords. Taking a break from his usual comedy routine, Vaughn - whose not very likable in this role - makes a compelling case for why the film should just be based on him instead.

But “Arkansas” stays honed in on Swin and Kyle’s misadventures, and even goes as far to give Swin an unlikely romance with a beautiful nurse named Johnna (Eden Brolin) and the stakes hardly serve a purpose, because the relationship is highly implausible. In another director's hands, perhaps the casting choices would complement the scripting as Hemsworth and Duke fail to possess the chemistry required to keep you invested in the narrative.

“Arkansas” is all bark and no bite.

Grade: C-

ARKANSAS is now available to rent and buy from various on-demand platforms.

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