It’s a cause of continuing wonderment that so-called family movies that would barely pass muster for broadcast on a PG-mindful cable network periodically escape from the confines of the tube to make a brief appearance on a few theatre screens. “Down and Derby” is certainly an example of this curious phenomenon. Writer-director Eric Hendershot’s labored tale of a bunch of suburban fathers who go insanely competitive over their sons’ participation in the Pinewood Derby might make for a foul-weather time-waster on Nickelodeon, the Fox Family Channel or even the Disney network, but on the big screen it’s a hapless, hopeless bore.
Greg Germann plays Phil Davis, an ad exec who lives on the same cul-de-sac as his childhood buddies, loudmouth Big Jimmy (Perry Anzilotti) and milquetoast Blaine (Ross Brockley). Unfortunately, Phil’s bete noir Ace Montana (Marc Raymond), who’s been beating him at everything for years, is also a neighbor. When all four guys’ boys enter the derby as part of their scouting–apparently the event, which involves carving little wooden cars that are then raced down mini-tracks, is a big deal–all four fathers go to extraordinary lengths to win, in effect taking over the project from their kids. This annoys the children, but even more the three friends’ wives; Phil’s spouse Kim, played by Lauren Holly, is particularly irked by his antics, especially since he blows off an important work assignment in the process.
The first half of “Derby,” which basically sets up this whole business, doesn’t get beyond basic teleflick quality (and there’s a really awful musical montage), but the movie goes completely out of whack in the last forty minutes or so. There’s a really stupid bit involving Pat Morita as the head of the Japanese firm whose business Phil’s ad agency is trying to land, and an even dumber revelation about Montana, which in turn leads to a simply terrible episode in which Phil, Jimmy and Blaine break into his house and have to hide when he and his family come back unexpectedly. But even this drivel is surpassed by a curiously unsavory subplot in which the three guys’ kids effectively rob their fathers blind in exchange for a promise to stay out of their dads’ hair while they’re trying to build their fast little cars. Then there’s the singularly unexciting finale, which naturally turns stickily sentimental while preparing for a big twist that has all the flavor of a stale pretzel.
Under the circumstances one probably shouldn’t blame the performers too much, but it’s obvious that Hendershot has encouraged all of them to mug ferociously in an effort to put across his weak, silly script. The effect is most pronounced on the unfortunate Germann, who might be a likable dolt under better circumstances, but the stentorian Anzilotti isn’t far behind (Brockley, on the other hand, underplays more happily). One feels especially sorry for Holly and Morita; though their on-screen embarrassment is of limited duration (Holly must have been especially glad when the script called for her character to abandon the house to her hubby), they’re people who have actually had careers and so are more likely to be noticed–and blamed. From a technical perspective this is the sort of picture for which the adjective “average” seems to have been invented.
Though participants in the Pinewood Derby might get some small pleasure from having the contest serve as the linchpin of a movie, everybody else would be wise to boycott this running of the race. Especially as it rounds the final curve, “Down and Derby” crashes and burns.