Cellmates is an indie film that shouldn't work. And at times it doesn't, but at other times it has an offbeat integrity that engages.
The plot is threadbare, and many of the allusions seem dated and forgotten.
Cellmates is an odd-couple comedy set in a prison in Texas in the 1970s. There are hoary allusions to George Wallace and George McGovern and Ben Casey on tv. Who is going to relate to that?
The two cellmates are a Ku Klux Klan Grand Marshall Leroy Lowe (Tom Sizemore) who has been imprisoned for fraud, and a Mexican farm worker Emilio (Hector Jimenez), who is jail for his activity on strike.
Warden Merville (Stacy Keach) has an obsession with potatoes and having the inmates produce them.
Madalena (Olga Segura), the maid who cleans the warden's office, eventually becomes the love interest for Leroy.
The warden says, "It takes a lot of hard work to create the perfect potato."
Sometimes it seems that director Jesse Baget is trying to produce the perfect movie potato.
Not much there - maybe a chuckle or two. A one potato, two potato comedy. Squash may be funny, but potatoes aren't. Another potential object of Baget's humor is Hector's unruly hair. Baldness may be humorous; is hair?
So perhaps Baget's target audience is those who think potatoes and hair are funny. Not much of a crowd there.
If the humor in Cellmates is biteless - potatoes, anyone? - what gives the movie its value?
It's good that Tom Sizemore has broad shoulders, because he has to carry the movie. And carry it he does. In a role that easily could be rendered hammy and cheap, Sizemore strikes natural notes.
With a gleam in his eye, and puzzled smirks on his face, Sizemore brings credibility to nonsense. He blinks, sighs, smiles, and ponders. Sizemore humanizes what could easily be a caricature.
After Sizemore's blatant pubic travails, it's a surprise and a relief to witness his gifted restraint.
Hector Jimenez as Emilio has less range, but he too keeps from being a cartoon.
Stacy Keach plays a blowhard, but he has the grace not to cover his own harelip with make-up, which gives his characterization an integrity.
Kevin Farley (the late Chris's brother) is amiable as Bubba, Leroy's original cellmate. He leaves the audience wanting more when he departs early.
Olga Segura adds quiet presence as the maid with whom Leroy becomes smitten.
Baget who directed, edited (with Andrea Bottigliero), and wrote (with Stefania Moscato) Cellmates, should get some credit for the performances.
The editing also is effective, especially montages of Emilio's hair and Leroy's positions as he writes letters. The film's professional quality is added to by the photography and lighting by Bill Otto.
The screenplay, although somewhat lackluster, gives Leroy the intelligence to use words such as "logistics" and "bona fide." And the warden's, "how do you like them beans?" is clever.
But Cellmates basically depends on Tom Sizemore. Baget tosses Sizemore a hot potato, which he catches with cool aplomb.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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