Producers: Julie B. Denny, Melissa Kirkendall, Koen Wooten and Mark Bristol   Director: Mark Bristol   Screenplay:  Julie B. Denny   Cast: Thomas Haden Church, Rudy Pankow, Carrie-Anne Moss, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Brad Leland, Bruce Dern, Mark Nutter, Jake Ryan, AnnaClaire Hicks, David DeLao, Selase Botchway, Elizabeth Maxwell and Jennifer Griffin   Distributor: Roadside Attractions

Grade: C+

Mark Bristol’s adaptation of Cole Thompson’s 1999 novel “Chocolate Lizards” combines a fish-out-of-water story, an odd couple bromance and a David-vs.-Goliath oil patch tale in a mixture so anxious to deliver the goods that it winds up too gooey for words.  In material of this sort a little restraint can work wonders, and its absence can be fatal.  Fortunately in this case a good cast mitigates the damage.

The credits show recent Harvard grad and would-be screen star Erwin Vandeveer (energetic Rudy Pankow)—one wonders whether his agent hadn’t suggested he change his name to something more catchy—driving from Los Angeles to Bonaparte Studios in New Orleans, where he’s scheduled for a potentially career-making role in some sort of action movie.  But he’s quickly fired after the cell phone he’s forgotten to turn off sets off the pyrotechnics in his first scene early, destroying the elaborate set in an orgy of explosions.

As he drives back to California disconsolate, his car breaks down outside a small West Texas town called Buffalo Gap, and hiking to the local diner to seek help, he encounters not just welcoming waitress Faye (Carrie-Anne Moss) but Merle Luskey (Thomas Haden Church, doing his drawling bit amiably), a good-natured, loquacious if somewhat exhausted oilman who offers to help with the car but asks a little favor in return—putting some hysterical chickens into a car in the church parking lot.

It turns out the car belongs to Chad (Jake Ryan), a sneering banker who, along with his senior partner Brock (Mark Nutter), is planning to foreclose on Merle’s operation in a month, not only driving him into bankruptcy but his loyal drilling team (AnnaClaire Hicks, David DeLao and Selase Botchway) onto the unemployment line.  His only hope is to bring in a gusher within thirty days, and he thinks Erwin can help. 

How?  By using his acting skill to impersonate a canny “land man,” the fellow responsible for selecting patches of soil with promising oil potential.  In that guise he can infiltrate the local land office and learn what properties the bankers are securing options on.  This inane scheme works: Erwin is able to steal maps that have been prepared for them and, with Faye’s help (she and Merle are obviously meant for each other), the duo make a deal with quirky old rancher Scheermeyer (Bruce Dern, looking frail but with the same old snappishness), the one owner whose signature the bankers hadn’t been able to secure.  It becomes a race against the clock to bring in a gusher before the deadline, a task made more unlikely when the boys find that the bankers are in league with powerful Amarillo oil exec Max Dugan (no, not the character once played by Jason Robards Jr. but a crusty fellow here embodied by Brad Leland).

On the way to the predictable conclusion—a ridiculous sequence in which clips of a countdown clock actually interrupts the crew’s frantic attempts to finish the well while the conflicted sheriff (Julio Cesar Cedillo) looks on and ultimately makes the right choice—Erwin and Merle bond as they share memories of their troubled family lives, with the young man at odds with his father over his acting dream and the older one explaining how he dropped out of school to join his father’s business and later lost his wife and child.  In fact, the best parts of “Accidental Texan” lie in the scenes between them, since Church and Pankow have a nice rapport, capturing in brief strokes how the relationship between their characters develops.

On the other hand, the nuts-and-bolts of the oil-drilling scenario don’t bear even an ounce of scrutiny, from the implausibility of an East Coast boy so easily fooling folks about his expertise (and then stumbling into unlikely perspicacity in the business) to the absurdity of anybody in West Texas thinking that Troy Aikman’s first name is Roy (something that comes up when Merle gets Erwin to forge the quarterback’s signature on a ball for big fan Dugan).  The Three Stooges quality of the Chad-Brock-Dugan business is also hard to take, seeming to come out of a different, crasser picture.  And perhaps you too will be bothered by the sequence in which a sad widow (Jennifer Griffin), whom the bankers are also foreclosing on, offers her land for exploration, only for Merle to brusquely dismiss her because the time is too short; certainly room could have been made for some later alleviation of her plight.                            

Still, thanks to the performances the movie, imperfect as it is, remains easy to take.  Bristol and editor James K. Crouch wisely give Church and Pankow room to fill out their character in fairly leisurely fashion, and technically matters are pretty solid for a project operating on an obviously modest budget: Scott Daniel’s production design, Anna Abbey’s costumes and Matthew Wise’s cinematography are all of professional quality, and the score by Carl Thiel and Stephen Barber doesn’t soup things up overmuch.

“Accidental Texan” would have benefited from some rewriting, but even as it is, it’s a harmless, pleasant trifle to pass the time with, even if it falls short of the lovable crowd-pleaser it aims to be.