Don't Be Cruel


A young German girl named Greta has a thing for Willie Nelson.

Raised by an alcoholic mother and trapped in a stagnant marriage, she turns to Willie's songs because they give her "hope." Plucky but naïve, and hearing news of Willie's final concert in Las Vegas (a fiction; Willie still performs), Greta sells her husband's Porsche for peanuts, sets fire to the house, and leaves Germany for Glitter Gulch. There, she meets an Elvis impersonator named Nick, who takes her under his sequined wing. A road trip ensues, love blooms, Greta is done wrong and wakes up. This is Thelma and Louise without the Louise.

Eva Hassmann, the writer/producer/director, seems uncertain about the kind of movie she's making or the image she's projecting. She stars as Greta and situates herself as the center of every scene. Is Greta meant to be a hayseed or a minx? She's sexy in a steely way but prone to pratfalls and jokes that are hackneyed and predictable. Think Diane Kruger by way of Lucille Ball. She's hoodwinked by hustlers, threatened with rape and a rattlesnake, and is loaded unconscious into the back of a truck with her skirt hiked up to her waist. All while clutching an (empty) album cover of Willie's Always on My Mind to her chest.

Ms. Hassmann's filmmaking is uneven. She clearly wants to be considered an auteur but doesn’t show a point of view. The flashbacks to Greta's childhood are meant to be poignant, simply cut around the stilted expressions of inexperienced child actors (Ms. Hassmann is listed as editor, too). Scenes of the mature Greta wreaking dangerous havoc in her marriage are downright cruel, as are cutaways to Greta's harried husband complaining to the police and conferring with Nick, the impersonator. What would Elvis do? Nick should know better than to get too close to this one. 

More to the point: how old is this movie? Its style of humor and mise en scene are pretty dated. For example, Willie and Me claims this is Peter Bogdanovich's final film role. Mr. Bogdanovich is the esteemed director of Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show and has acted in The Sopranos. Here, he plays a seedy hotel manager and doesn't look so good. This film's release date is 2024. Peter Bogdanovich died in 2022. So, doing the math and allowing for a period of decline, we can guess Willie and Me might well have been filmed four years ago. 

The supporting cast supports. As Nick, the Elvis impersonator, Blaine Gray has a square-jawed charm. Dressed as Elvis, he sings Willie songs to soothe Greta (a dissection of Celebrity—Willie crossing paths with Elvis—might've been an interesting subplot if the script was more self-aware). Darby Stanchfield, late of Shonda Rhimes's Scandal, has fun as a fundamentalist mom with a brood of precocious urchins. Thure Riefenstein plays Great's harried husband. The most thankless role goes to Peter Bogdanovich. His character slugs back shots of whiskey on the sly. Is this meant to be comic? Devices like this add nothing to the character and reflect oddly on Greta's strife with her drunken mom. Are we meant to laugh or commiserate?

Willie puts in an appearance as a mysterious man in black living off the land. And he appears as "himself" in concert footage and a scene backstage with Greta. The soundtrack is mostly Willie's greatest hits (which in my screener had no publishing credits), yet Ms. Hassmann cites herself discreetly as supplying the "film score."

Perhaps the film grew out of an opportunity to sing onstage with Willie, a video of which is embedded in the closing credits. Ms. Hassmann shares the mic and the crowd seems excited to see her. Maybe she's popular in Germany, but Willie and Me is an illogical mix of genres and an uneasy mix of ambition and vanity without an original vision.

Willie and Me. Directed by Eva Hassmann. 2024. Produced by Skyvalley Productions. 87 minutes.

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