Dir. Nigel Cole. US.2008.89 mins.
While Christopher Walken has repeatedly shown himself to be a master of self-reinvention, one wouldn’t expect him to emerge at this stage of his career as the heir apparent to Walter Matthau. In $5 A Day, a sentimental road comedy with a devilish soul, Walken ferrets out every last nuance in the sort of role that Matthau would traversed in his sleep.
Walken hits one more career bulls-eye as an irrepressible hustler who, faced with a terminal illness, railroads his resentful son into driving him on a final cross-country trip. As end-of-the-line, male-bonding sagas go, $5 A Day isn’t pandering and shameless enough to be the holiday season cash cow that The Bucket List proved to be. Filmed on a shoestring, it’s a smaller but savvier film than that Rob Reiner opus and should find an appreciative audience, buttressed by strong word-of-mouth and Walken’s multi-faceted performance.
Walken’s character Nat Parker holds court in a junk-laden Atlantic City lair, where he stitches together a living with a variety of cons and contests. Claiming he is dying from a malignant brain tumor, Parker recruits his son Flynn (Nivola) to drive him to a holistic center in Arizona for treatment. A recently deposed L.A. health inspector who has served prison time as a result of one of Nat’s failed ruses, Flynn has reason to be suspicious. But he yields to his dad, who loosens him with up palaver ripped off from old movies, punctuated by the ultimate kicker: ‘You’re all I have.’
In truth, Parker has a vast network of cronies and a bottomless trove of schemes that will spirit father and son across America without spending a dime. Piling into a free-gas, Sweet ‘n’ Low ad car that is stuffed with promotional cell phones, Nat and Flynn make their way west, taking advantage of empty homes up for sale and retirement communities offering complementary sales-promotion weekends. Along the way, Nat sponges off of a pharmaceutical convention dinner and the good graces of Dolores Jones (Stone), a former babysitter to Flynn who has made a killing of her own off of scam lawsuits.
Director Nigel Cole brings to the table the same flair for actor-driven, naughty-sappy comedies that made Calendar Girls and Saving Grace middlebrow hits. He gets solid work out of Nivola, Stone and Peet (as Flynn’s estranged girlfriend), but it’s ultimately Walken’s show. The actor impresses as much for where he doesn’t go as where he does: Walken keeps a tight lid on the emotive jar, dropping the Dobrofskys’ cunning dialogue from behind a mask of sadness that bespeaks paternal regret, scam fatigue and, if he is to be believed, an awareness of encroaching death.