The old “Bachelor Father” formula is resurrected with a killer dose of whimsy in this pointedly quirky, almost unbearably dilatory first feature from writer-director Katrina Holden Bronson. And while it’s unlikely that such a poky, extravagantly off-kilter treatment of a pathetically familiar scenario could have succeeded under any circumstances, it seems almost a perverse cinematic death wish to have cast someone so utterly uncharismatic as Johnny Knoxville in the central role. Proving that he’s even less appealing underplaying than when he goes full-bore (as in “The Dukes of Hazzard”), the would-be leading man makes the lethargically paced, overly cutesy “Daltry Calhoun” an even more flaccid and irksome experience than it would otherwise have been.
In a prologue we see deadbeat low-life Daltry separated from his girlfriend Mae (Elizabeth Banks) and their child June by Mae’s abrasive Aunt Dee (Beth Grant). Some years later, a reformed Calhoun has established himself as the leading citizen of Ducktown, Tennessee–he’s a successful landscaper whose firm specializes in golf courses. Unfortunately, just as his business founders because his trademark grass blend proves unstable (sending up what look like large cacti), his ex-wife turns up terminally ill with their teenage daughter (Sophie Traub), an inquisitive kid who’s also a musical prodigy aiming at Juilliard, in tow, intending that he should take responsibility for her. The rest of the picture centers on the gradual bonding between Daltry and June, as well as complications that result from the presence of a local shopowner, Flora Flick (Juliette Lewis), a widow who’s in a relationship with Calhoun; Doyle (David Koechner), a mentally-challenged man whom Daltry keeps on as a general factotum; and Frankie Strunk (Kick Gurry), an Australian expert hired by Daltry to fix the potentially devastating problem with the grass seed. There’s a precious quality to the scenario in the first place, but what seals the picture’s doom is the fact that it’s written and played with a degree of affectation that italicizes everything, and by slow pacing undoubtedly meant to enhance the charm but instead accentuating the almost desperate effort to generate it.
Despite the creakiness of the plot, the sluggishness that marks Bronson’s approach and Knoxville’s limp lead performance, however, there are some pleasures to be found here. Lewis is genuinely touching as Flora, the shopkeeper whose efforts to reach out to June are initially rebuffed, and one scene between her and Banks has a strong emotional undercurrent that’s all the stronger because it’s kept low-key. One will also smile seeing Andrew Prine appear as the local lawman, even if he’s on-screen only briefly. But elsewhere the rewards are much more meager. Koechner and Grant overplay broadly, to unfortunate effect. And most serious of all, until the latter stages of the picture Traub doesn’t connect with the audience as firmly as June needs to do; as a result the coming-of-age experiences that make up a good deal of the narrative aren’t nearly as engaging as they’re obviously intended to be. (Her infatuation with Frankie, for example, falls flat.) Nor is the physical production in any way outstanding; this is a low-budget effort, and looks it.
The ultimate problem with “Daltry Calhoun” is that its eagerness to please isn’t matched by equal proficiency in execution. And in Knoxville it has a black hole at the center that sucks out energy and makes for a tedious time indeed.