If one could entirely banish certain ideas for scenes from the minds of all screenwriters, then surely on the top 10 list for such cinematic excommunication would be press conference confessionals, which at some point must have seemed really bold and original but by now almost without fail come across as lazy and pat — an entirely synthetic way to give an audience the feeling of a character-awakening conclusion without any of the heavy lifting that accompanies honest reflection. Such is the dispiriting end point for Father of Invention, a weird and fitfully fresh comedy with a name-heavy cast that almost methodically fumbles away a viewer’s engagement, leaving them instead with thoughts of what could have been.
Robert Axle (Kevin Spacey) is an ego-driven infomercial guru who made his fortune fabricating mash-up inventions that maximized “the atomic and molecular potential” of purchasers (think a pepper spray-camera hybrid, so that one could snap photos of their attacker). A class action lawsuit related to one of his products landed him in jail, though, and when he gets out eight years later his wife Lorraine (Virginia Madsen) is remarried to Jerry (Craig Robinson). Robert lands a retail job working at a wholesale discount store under the high-strung Troy Coangelo (Johnny Knoxville) and his semi-estranged daughter Claire (Camilla Belle), now 22, grants him a place to live, but Robert almost immediately butts heads with one of her roommates, lesbian gym teacher Phoebe (Heather Graham). Robert’s big dream is get back into business, however, so he starts hitting the pavement and trying to come up with partners and financial backers for a new idea. Will a return to some of his old habits, however, land him back in trouble?
Spacey is custom-built for a guy like Axle — half heart, and half ambitious huckster — and he anchors Father of Invention with aplomb. The other performances don’t always feel like they’re from the same movie, though, even though decent joke-writing gives the actors piecemeal opportunities to shine. Director Trent Cooper cycles through lots of set-ups (somewhat refreshingly, the movie isn’t afraid to haul in a new character or setting for a joke), but after a while the narrative just seems manic and unfocused. There are so many elements to serve — from father/daughter reconciliation and Jerry and Lorraine’s pending bankruptcy to an eventual thawing and flirtation between Robert and Phoebe and even the parental divorce of Claire’s other roommate — that Father of Invention takes on the quality of a high school term paper thrown together at the last minute, all unconnected facts and half-baked assertions.
Does the movie desire to be a wacky ensemble comedy? Does it want to be a comedic-leaning tale of familial redemption? Or is it more expressly about Robert’s professional journey? The filmmakers can’t decide, ultimately, so a viewer mostly stops caring. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Anchor Bay, PG-13, 93 minutes)