A vital protagonist and a worthy social theme can’t overcome the contrivedness and goo that dominate “The Man in the Chair,” a dramedy about old movies and old age as experienced by film-crew veterans. What might have been a sparkling look at the careers and dreams of gaffers, sound technicians, costume designers and other craftspeople with silver-screen histories is little more than the familiar story in which a disenchanted adult and a kid-in-need bond and enrich each other.
Christopher Plummer plays “Flash” Madden, a bitter, drunken retired movie-biz electrician who got his nickname from Orson Welles and nowadays sits in a Hollywood rep house and heckles Welles when seeing him onscreen.
Flash’s awakening comes courtesy of Cameron Kincaid (Michael Angarano), a high school film nerd and juvenile-hall regular who persuades Flash — with an offer of cigars and Wild Turkey — to help him make a skateboarder movie for a film-school contest. Before long, Flash is convincing cronies at the movie-industry retirement home to lend their technical expertise to Cameron’s project.
The message factor comes in the form of broken screenwriter Mickey Hopkins (M. Emmet Walsh), who lives in a squalid facility. Affected by Mickey’s situation, Cameron shifts cinematic gears and makes an expose about nursing-home conditions.
For sure, this film is noteworthy for looking at ageist mind-sets, shoddy care institutions, and depression and loneliness among older people. And more brightly, it engagingly depicts the camaraderie shared by the film-crew retirees.
But too often, writer-director Michael Schroeder (“Cyborg 2”) addresses such issues via preachy tirades issued by Flash, or sappy plot streams, especially those involving the central relationship of Flash and Cameron. Serving as everything from a social drama to a geriatric comedy to a buddy flick, the film can’t find a substantial groove and lacks credibility.
Does anyone believe that Flash would try to fund Cameron’s film by asking longtime enemy Taylor Moss (Robert Wagner) — the producer who stole Flash’s wife — for the dough? The contrivances amass and become wearying.
Plummer, meanwhile, nails Flash’s bitterness, frustration and buried humanity and brings dark intensity to the picture. Unfortunately, the latter quality doesn’t jibe with the sugary tones that Schroeder establishes.
In the role of Mickey, Walsh fares best, but his character’s transformation from basket case to dynamo happens implausibly quickly.
The Man in the Chair **
Starring Christopher Plummer, Michael Angarano, M. Emmet Walsh, Robert Wagner
Written and directed by Michael Schroeder
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes