April 5, 2007

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Live Free or Die (R)
New Hampshire gets a starring role in the extremely uneven criminal caper Live Free or Die, a movie that won’t exactly be unseating On Golden Pond as everybody’s favorite Granite State movie anytime soon.

John “Rugged” Rudgate (Aaron Stanford) is a hardcore New Hampshire gangster, which is to say he’s a smalltime poser who claims credit for a recent murder to improve his rep. He runs into an old acquaintance, Lagrand (Paul Schneider), a guy who has inherited part ownership in a mini-storage but seems to be something of a small bus passenger, if you catch my meaning. As Rugged tries to convince Lagrand to give him a piece of the business in exchange for Rugged’s “security services,” Rugged knuckles under to some light bullying by a local shmo in a bar. Determined to prove just how street he is, Rugged drags Lagrand on a stakeout of the man’s house and then poisons his well. The upshot is that the man dies and Rugged assumes (incorrectly) that it’s his fault, thus necessitating a series of events to hide the crime that wasn’t.

Their actions meanwhile bring in a police chef (Kevin Dunn) and his deputy (Michael Rapaport), who is really too obsessed with finding out if his wife had an affair to fight crime; Lagrand’s sister (Zooey Deschanel), who sees both Rugged and Lagrand for the halfwits they are; Hesh (Judah Friedlander), a convenience store clerk, and Marcus (Peter Anthony Tambakis), a would-be hoodlum who narrates the tale.

Here are the things that Live Free or Die gets right about New Hampshire:

• Most of our towns look the same. This movie was shot in Claremont but its convenience store, supply store, liquor store, strip mall, “picturesque” downtown and old mill could have been anywhere.
• Hoodies are the new flannel.
• Winter is not kind to the exteriors of our vehicles.
• Fashion-wise, we are stuck in 1987 (or, maybe in the cities, 1995).
• Yep, that’s what our bars look like.
• Ditto our seafood shacks.

These are not, I grant you, the things we will be advertising to the national media who flit from Keene to Dover, from Laconia to Nashua in the next few months (yes, I know there’s stuff north of that, but most of your president-guys don’t make it there until late in the fall). They are, however, amusing insights about the place where we live.

The problem with Live Free or Die is that in between these observations are scenes with acting that makes Clerks look like The Queen and dialogue that makes Mallrats sound like a Noel Coward play. The story develops a bit like a bumpy rug. I wish someone had gone back and edited smooth those jagged parts. And, while there is something endearing about Kevin Smith’s George-Lucas-like mouthfuls of dialogue and his performers’ college drama club-level acting, here these characteristics are distracting (was it the black and white that smoothed out the edges of Clerks?).

There is a solid, funny film to be made about the quirks of New Hampshire. Now that Gregg Kavet and Andy Robin have gotten this strutting little rooster of a caper movie out of the way, maybe they can make it. C+

Rated R for pervasive language including sex references. Written and directed by Gregg Kavet and Andy Robin, Live Free or Die is an hour and 32 minutes long and is distributed in limited release in New England by ThinkFilm.