An aspiring high school filmmaker bonds with survivors from Hollywood’s golden age in Michael Schroeder’s likable but unhappily ragged “Man in the Chair.” Movie buffs will get some enjoyment from the idea that today’s would-be directors have a lot to learn from oldsters, but it’s a message that might have been more effectively delivered.
The engaging young actor Michael Angarano, probably best known for his work in “Sky High,” plays Cameron, an outsider at his L.A. campus who intends entering a short film competition against rich bully Brett (Taber Schroeder). He’s got plenty of ideas but not much cash or experience. At a repertory screening of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” however, he bumps into a scraggly old drunk called Flash (Christopher Plummer), who shouts at the screen. It turns out that despite his appearance Flash was actually a member of Welles’ crew—a gaffer on whom the famous director bestowed the nickname.
Cameron asks Flash for his help on his project, and the initially reluctant old man eventually agrees, enlisting not only his fellow residents at the movie nursing home but once-great screenwriter Mickey Hopkins (M. Emmet Walsh), who’s ensconced in a fleabag flat, and whose circumstances so shock the boy that he decides to make his film about the degrading ways in which impoverished old people are forced to live. Flash also buries his pride to ask for financial aid from an old friend and rival, a producer who stole his wife (Robert Wagner). But while Flash and Cameron gradually bond—and Flash helps the boy win grudging respect from his harsh taskmaster stepfather (Mitch Pileggi), their work is endangered by the old man’s drunkenness and wild mood swings. But never fear: they’ll overcome all obstacles to finish the movie.
There’s a good deal of TV-movie mentality in all this (although Schroeder deserves some credit for at least stepping away from the most predictable of triumphal endings). But a network film would be far more slickly made. “Man in the Chair”—meaning the director’s chair, of course—looks about as scruffy as Flash does, with generally grungy cinematography from Dana Gonzales (including some visually tricked-out transitions that are more aggravating than mood-setting).
But Angarano manages to make Cameron a rebellious kid with a nice streak of vulnerability, and it’s good to encounter Walsh again—one of those inimitable character actors who always brings a smile to your face even when, as here, he’s going for poignancy. Most of the attention, however, will undoubtedly be on Plummer, who plays Flash with abandon—so much, in fact, that the performance often seems more like an over-the-top vaudeville turn. A bit of subtlety would not have been out of place. But it’s still pleasant to see him in such a large role, and at least he’s spared the sort of indignity he was forced to endure in a picture like John Boorman’s awful “Where the Heart Is” (1990), where he played a grotesque caricature of a street person.
Schroeder’s movie is too slight and formulaic to amount to much, but at least, unlike Boorman’s, its heart is in the right place.