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Keep the Change
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by Jack Sommersby

"An Unheralded Low-Key Masterpiece."
5 stars

It's reminiscent of John Mellencamp's extraordinary "Falling from Grace" that came out the same year.

A year prior to the miraculous TV-movie Keep the Change the talented William Petersen gave an ingratiating performance in the agreeable Hard Promises as a responsibility-dodging husband who preferred working an eclectic array of odd jobs across the country rather than punching a nine-to-five timeclock doing boring tasks; he sent his paychecks home to his wife and just couldn't understand why she was unhappy being that he was financially providing for her and their teenage daughter, with Petersen expertly lending gravitas to a part so we didn't read the guy as an obtuse goof (this restless nomad simply couldn't rid himself of the "hobo demon"). Previously he did intense work as the revenge-seeking Secret Service agent in To Live and Die in L.A. and the mentally fragile FBI profiler in Manhunter, so it was surprising to see he could be agreeably loose and funny in a charming role; and it's to our good fortune he scores again here as frustrated Los Angeles painter Joe Starling who, artistically blocked and behind on bills on his beachside home with credit cards maxed out, returns to his small Montana hometown after a twelve-year hiatus to recharge his batteries and get some perspective on his life. He's left behind his estranged girlfriend Astrid (Rachel Ticotin) and wastes no time allowing himself to be seduced by his high-school flame Ellen (Lolita Davidovich) who's estranged herself from her husband Billy (Jeff Kober) who was Joe's former rival; Ellen's father Overstreet (Jack Palace) is the community's bigwig who still wants to acquire the ranch property of Joe's deceased father which is in Joe's aunt's name, the same aunt whose compunction-deprived insurance-salesman brother Smitty (Buck Henry) is always trying to get people to put money into any one of his hair-brained get-rich-quick schemes, with his current one bringing Gulf Coast shrimp to Big Sky country to sate a supposed desire for seafood in a rural area where buffalo burgers are the thing. Using the ranch as collateral Joe succeeds in getting a bank loan to fix up the ranch and raise and deliver a herd of cattle for market, and the unrelenting Overstreet uses every bit of influence he can to thwart his efforts. Petersen looks good in western duds, and is convincing as a man who's lost a good deal of focus in life; he's one of the few former stage actors who's relaxed in front of the camera and can lucidly convey the train of thought - he tactfully suggests instead of showily overstating. (Petersen also possesses dramatic judgment in that he reportedly turned down the lead role in Martin Scorsese's overpraised Goodfellas, which makes sense being that the Henry Hill character had no interesting layers whereas Joe is chock-full of them.)

But Petersen isn't the whole show. Every one of the supporting cast members (and that includes the excellent politician/sometimes-actor Fred Dalton Thompson as Joe's ranch-hand) are first-rate and etch indelible portraits without ever veering into cliche, though Palance comes dangerously close at times; the people they're portraying are incredibly vivid yet lived-in at the same time - you never feel you're watching thespians going through the motions on a dude ranch with Hollywood comforts, and sense a real kinship among the people of this tight-knit town with old-fashioned values. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel Keep the Change was based on, by the unique Thomas McGuane, and the teleplay by John Miglis is largely faithful to it; McGuane wrote screenplays for two feature-film Western pictures, The Missouri Breaks (with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando) and Tom Horn (with Steve McQueen), but they were overstuffed and amorphous at the same time, probably due to studio interference to reshape the material to indulge the stars' egos - they never came across as products of a writer's organic vision. Here, shorn of a big budget and demanding superstars, the cable company TNT, which financed Keep the Change, has gotten out of the way and left the moviemakers to their own devices. McGuane's dialogue is wonderfully piquant whether it's Joe remarking on his money troubles ("I'm so broke I can't afford to pay attention") or Overstreet's smug dismissal of his son-in-law's acumen ("That boy moves his lips when he listens"), and the story construction is fluid without ever coming off as episodic, which is certainly not always the case in the television medium. Granted, there's a late-in-the-game death of a character for the sole sake of melodrama and would have been best jettisoned, but to its somewhat credit it's not milked for uncouth pathos - it's not breezed over per se but not shamefully lingered over, either. The director, Andy Tennant, whose first feature-length production this is after forays in three TV serieses, displays a clean, unobtrusive hand, and, with an assist from David Cronenberg's usual cinematographer Mark Irwin, the movie is vibrantly wholesome with the proper proportion of context and style. By and large, I don't see how Keep the Change could be any better. It sings truthfulness without screaming it, and has enough confidence and substance to sustain itself on its own low-key terms. In a day and age of big-screen special effects and sensationalism, it's something of a genuine classic.

Badly needs a DVD release.

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originally posted: 10/23/20 14:05:16
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  09-Jun-1992 (NR)



Directed by
  Andy Tennant

Written by
  John Miglis

  William Petersen
  Rachel Ticotin
  Lolita Davidovich
  Buck Henry
  Jeff Kober

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