Lots of movies coming out today seem to be more about spectacle than about people. Look no further than most of this summer’s offerings; it’s easy to wipe out an entire city block, but it’s not so easy to create characters anybody cares about. That’s kind of the thing about road trip movies, they can be really offbeat and bizarre, but at the end of the day, if they’re going to succeed they have to be about people you want to be around. Seriously, who really wants to be stuck on a two hour journey with Paul Walker as he struggles to read dialogue off of his palm? It also helps if the characters are fun, quirky and (most importantly) have great chemistry with each other. ”Cloudburst“, coming to DVD July 30 from Wolfe Video, manages to hit many of the right notes, but doesn’t reach it’s destination without hitting a few speed bumps.
Stella (Olympia Dukakis) and Dot (Brena Fricker) have been housemates and lovers for over 30 years. With Dot’s health on the decline (she’s nearly blind), her granddaughter Molly (Kristin Booth) sees a golden opportunity to have her “Nona” put in a nursing home so she can take control of the family’s property. Painfully oblivious to the women’s relationship, Molly tricks Dot into signing over power of attorney, thus breaking up their happy home. The spitball she is, Stella won’t take this lying down. Sneaking into the old folk’s home, she breaks her lover out of the facility and the two take to the road. With an APB out on them both, they decide to flee to Canada where they can get married and ensure they’ll never be separated again. Along the way, they pick up a male hitchhiker named Prentice (Ryan Doucette), a tortured young soul who ends up learning about life and love from these two unlikely mentors.
Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald, based on his own stage play, it’s surprising to think that a man would attempt/succeed at writing lesbian characters nearly twice his own age. Honestly, I don’t know that I’m in any position to verify that he actually did get it right, but you’ve got to give him credit for the try. I’m no prude, but what seems like a bittersweet love story seems to be tarnished by crude jokes and language that seem like they’ve only been included to show that the main characters (particularly Stella) are constantly thinking of sex – as if homosexuality is their only defining quality. It’s kind of like Burgess Meredith’s character in “Grumpy Old Men” only gay… and in virtually every scene. The story itself is decent, but at times teeters on the unrealistic. For example, while the two women have reasons to pick up the hitchhiker, it seems a bit far fetched that they would let this stranger drive off alone in their truck with only good faith ensuring that he would come back to pick them up. It’s also pretty ridiculous that Molly, despite hearing from EVERYBODY that her grandma and the KD Lang loving, men’s clothes wearing, pickup driving Stella are lovers still doesn’t grasp it. Call it denial if you want… I’ll call it a convenient weakness of script.
But in spite of these flaws, Fitzgerald gets first rate performances from everyone involved and that certainly smooths things over. I’m really not fond of how Stella is written, as it feels juvenile and desperate for a laugh, but Olympia Dukakis is able to deliver the lines as naturally as possible. Instead of coming off as a Betty White-like novelty, Stella is played as an outspoken senior who just happens to be perpetually horny. The scenes where she softens up and really shows her love for Dotty round her out nicely and elevate what could be a one joke character into a three-dimensional person that you’d like to see win in the end. Brenda Fricker’s Dot actually feels like someone’s Nona and feels like an appropriate balance to Stella. The two actresses do have a great chemistry and the best parts of the film are when they’re allowed to bounce off one another. The duo is well complemented by Ryan Doucette, who holds his own sharing the screen with these two Oscar winners. Reprising his role as Prentice from the stage play, Doucette (looking like the love child of Patrick Dempsey and Paul Rudd) adds more heart and humor to what would otherwise be a pretty thin plot.
The DVD looks pretty good, but this release would’ve been amazing given the Blu-Ray treatment. Shot entirely in Canada on actual 35mm film, the filmmakers take advantage of the beautiful views at their disposal. Gorgeous coastlines and sunsets, rolling fields and rustic little towns give the film a folksy North Eastern feel. Unfortunately, much of this has that lower res DVD “blur”. There isn’t any sort of artifacting or glitchy pixelation… but it would’ve been nice to get a sharper picture out of something so well shot. I’ve seen better DVDs, but I’ve also seen much worse. The 5.1 surround is clear and used by ambient sounds. Birds chirping, wind blowing and music bounce around the rear channels, giving a wonderful sense of depth. Dialogue sounds sharp through the center channel. They did a fantastic job with the audio here. The disc extras are pretty weak. There are interviews with the three main cast members which are your basic run-of-the-mill talking head shots where they talk about their characters as if they’re real people. Then there’s an 8 minute “Behind the Scenes” featurette which is pretty much some camcorder footage of the crew setting up their shots and shooting the actual scene. Like most DVDs, there are trailers for other films included, but Wolfe Video had the decency to include the trailer for THIS movie. There’s nothing that bothers me more than when a company puts out a movie with ten trailers pushing other product, but won’t give you the preview for the movie you paid for.
“Cloudburst“ earns 2.5 out of 4 angels. Great actors, good characters and an ok story make this film worth the watch. But try as it might, it never hits the funny highs or the heart wrenching lows of something like “Planes Trains & Automobiles“, which I’d say is still the gold standard for a road trip movie.