Chilly, sarcastic, over-the-top: all the usual adjectives used to describe a Quentin Tarantino film can also be attributed to “Arkansas.” The directorial debut of comedic actor Clark Duke, “Arkansas” is more an homage to Tarantino’s ’90s run (“True Romance,” “Pulp Fiction,” Reservoir Dogs”) than a celebration for a new voice. There are drug deals gone wrong, obscure ’70s rock, and oddballs trying to shoot their way out of impossible odds. There’s even a guy being tortured while tied to a chair. What there isn’t, however, is urgency.
A sense of casualness pulses throughout “Arkansas,” and extends to the filmmaking. Although writer-director-star, Duke, a staple of comedic relief in “Kickass” and “Hot Tub Time Machine,” does include some cool action sequences in his new film, they are interspersed with callbacks to more realized works, giving “Arkansas” the feel of a replicated painting—a dull copy of the real thing.
The premise alone screams Tarantino. Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) is a laconic, low-level drug dealer working for the mafia in Arkansas. For a while he’s content with doing odd jobs for a boss he’s never met, informing us that “organized crime in the South isn’t very organized.” Then, out of thin air, a youngster named Swin (Duke) comes along to spice up operations. He can’t do the same for the plot, which strains to keep up with author John Brandon’s novel of the same name, but Swin does give Duke a chance to play with genre conventions.
From the moment Swin tries to fix a failed cocaine shipment with duct tape, the audience is tipped off that Duke is aiming for satire in his love letter to crime comedies. None of these characters are supposed to be taken seriously, least of all John Malkovich’s park ranger, who steals every scene he’s in (his diddy on boredom harmonizes nicely with the pace). Although his appearance is brief, we do get some vintage Malkovich rambling along the way.
Yet, there’s a little too much rambling going on here. It feels as if Duke is trying to capture Midwest weariness in cinematic terms. Watching dumb people do silly stuff around Little Rock isn’t exactly thrilling, even if Kyle and Swin’s taking matters into their own hands adds an element of social commentary. Amidst the deadpan comedy and ultra-violence, “Arkansas” frames our hero’s plight as an emblem for the American dream. Kyle and Swin ditch corporate to make more money. Not realizing who they’re up against–a sleazy kingpin named Frog (Vince Vaughn)—they start slinging cocaine independently, running into an assortment of obstacles you have seen countless times before (strip club shootouts, anyone?).
Over the course of the narrative, Duke and his co-screenwriter, Andrew Boonkrong, jump back and forth in time, setting up twists that resurface years later. But the biggest surprise they cook up is their script’s lack of surprises. While Frog’s identity as kingpin may be a secret to Kyle, it’s no secret to the audience. Duke offers a number of “Pulp Fiction”-style flashbacks showing how Frog went from pawnshop owner to drug lord. These scenes are well crafted enough to keep viewers interested, with an assist from DP Steven Meizler’s clever use of gauzy, anamorphic lenses. Shacks, houseboats, and antique stores give flashbacks an Arkansas flavor, making Frog’s backstory a welcome burst of energy during a meandering middle section.
“Arkansas” is, for long stretches, laid back. Despite its cartoonish performances, the tone is defiantly low key, with little of the vigor you expect from something inspired by Tarantino. By the time Kyle and Frog standoff, in a rare scene that makes use of the stylish zooms and zippy soundtrack, the battle between artist and influence has already taken center stage. Quirky charm meets brash charisma. And for two dreary hours, we’re stuck in the middle with Duke. [C-]