Jeremy Davies can break your heart.
As an actor, his slight build and wispy presence can make him seem like an emaciated angel in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, and Soderbergh's Solaris. You want to give him a big hug and a sandwich. But when his characters go off the rails, as in Wender's Million Dollar Hotel, or in TV's Justified (for which part he won an Emmy), you might want to whomp him upside the head. His performance devolves into mumblings and twitches.
So it is, in the beginning of the new film Adventures of the Naked Umbrella, in which he plays an arsonist/podcaster/conspiracy theorist with a motormouth and a mullet. One character, the town sheriff played by the venerable Tom Arnold, calls him "wackier than a soup sandwich." And for the first half hour that's true. He's a bare wire of frenetic energy, jerking and flashing as madly as the colored lights that festoon his home (it's a Christmas movie).
But then about halfway through, something shifts, and you actually begin to feel for the guy.
Mr. Davies plays Sam Wanoutsky, a convicted felon -- known on his podcast as The Naked Umbrella -- who lives with his wife Irene (Taryn Manning of Netflix's Orange is the New Black) in a dilapidated trailer. For all his delusional mania, Sam is kept in check by his med and his parole officer Yolanda (an excellent Darnell Rhea) until the trailer blows up in spectacular fashion. Sam and Irene flee to the house of his meth-snorting grandmother (played in drag by veteran character actor Richard Riehle) until that place, too, explodes under mysterious circumstances. Is Sam responsible? Yolanda is on his trail, along with Charlie, a bar owner and town deputy played by Bert Rotundo.
It's when the straights get together that the film shifts tone. Before that it's a wacky romp with outlandish characters and no apparent purpose, but Ms. Rhea and Mr. Rotundo's scene while in pursuit of Sam substitutes tenderness for zaniness. They care, in a way that Sam and Irene need. And suddenly the movie has heart. Then a subsequent scene with Sam and Irene providing characterization instead of just characters pretty much clinches it. If you make it that far, you're in for the long haul.
A harrowing backstory fills us in on the source of Sam's affection for setting things aflame. His father taught him that specialized skill and instructed him to "Keep your eyes on the fire." It's a human detail that adds just the right amount of tragedy to the mix. When the movie works you might even be reminded of The Big Lebowski.
Adventures of the Naked Umbrella (terrible title) is written and directed by Gerald Brunskill, who has one other feature to his credit ("It's Gawd!" with Tommy Chong) and is produced by Lawrence Bender of Pulp Fiction fame. They've assembled an eccentric cast that works as long as you don't think about it too much. Mr. Brunskill directs with skill, often supported by a swelling score by Jeff Victor.
And we haven't even discussed the flying saucers. Suffice it to say that Adventures of the Naked Umbrella is a spinning salad of noise and ideas, some of which are clever enough to save it.
Adventures of the Naked Umbrella. Directed by Gerald Brunskill. 2023. Produced by Wow and Flutter Productions. Released by Level 33 Entertainment. In theaters and on VOD. 101 minutes.