The descriptor “Tarantino-esque” can be applied to entirely too many movies made in the 1990s. For a while there, it felt as if every other up-and-coming filmmaker had watched Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction and thought, “Man, that was cool. I bet I could I do that.” Alas, most of them couldn't do that, leaving us with a boatload of mediocre movies filled with hip criminals, labyrinthine plotting, overripe dialogue, excessive violence, incessant profanity and old-school soundtrack selections. As such things go, John Herzfeld's 2 Days in the Valley is slightly above-average. Yes, it offers all of the above elements in an effort to mimic Tarantino, but it also delivers a handful of intriguing characters, a few narrative surprises and a little bit of genuine soulfulness. It's no Pulp Fiction – in fact, it's occasionally kinda terrible - but it goes down easier than most movies like this.
If I were to attempt to explain the plot of the film to you, I suspect I would find myself simply describing the entire film to you. This is one of those movies which reveals its true nature as it unfolds, explaining who everyone is and how they connect to each other as we work our way towards the finish line. As such, it's probably better if I simply tell you that the film takes place in the San Fernando Valley and that lots of colorful characters with wildly different goals and motivations live there.
The first character we meet is Dosmo Pizzo (Danny Aiello, Do the Right Thing), an aging hitman who's taking a new assignment for the first time in years in an effort to ease the pain of his considerable gambling debts. His employer is Lee Woods (James Spader, Stargate), a smart, ruthless killer who has a nasty habit of telling his victims that they have sixty seconds left to live before he kills them. Spader plays the part as if he's some sort of comic book villain, complete with a cheesy monologue about what a crucial role the concept of “one minute” plays in our society (“We have one-minute rice,” he muses). Lee's girlfriend is a beautiful blonde named Helga Svelgen (Charlize Theron, Aeon Flux), who kinda loves Lee but mostly fears him. The film marks Theron's big-screen debut, and it's no surprise she went on to stardom: she was almost certainly hired for her ability to look good in an extended sex scene, but she demonstrates a screen presence that transcends the flimsy nature of her role.
Elsewhere, we follow L.A. cops Wes Taylor (Eric Stoltz, The Fly II) and Alvin Strayer (Jeff Daniels, Dumb and Dumber). The former is soft-spoken, sensitive and thoughtful, the latter is angry, racist and impulsive. They're currently attempting to take down a local massage parlor (mostly because the parlor is located in Alvin's own neighborhood), but eventually stumble onto a murder scene. Wes sees a career opportunity and wants to investigate, while Alvin would prefer to let his superiors handle it. Stoltz gets the bulk of the dialogue in these scenes, but Daniels is a considerably more dominant presence – his explosive fury is compelling and a little frightening.
Teddy Peppers (writer/actor/director Paul Mazursky, Down and Out in Beverly Hills) is a film director whose best days are behind him. He now finds himself unable to get work after a string of embarrassing flops, and has grown suicidal as a result. This is the film's strongest subplot, due in no small part to Mazursky's affecting performance. There's a devastating scene in which an old colleague cruelly puts Teddy's current state into perspective, and an equally strong moment in which Teddy attempts to justify the notion of suicide to his yapping terrier. Eventually, he meets a kind-hearted woman (Marsha Mason, The Goodbye Girl) who takes his life in an unexpected direction.
Then there's Allan Hopper (Greg Crutwell, George of the Jungle), a snotty art collector whose only companions are a large dog and a timid personal assistant (Glenne Headley, Dick Tracy). Plus, there's Becky Foxx (Teri Hatcher, Desperate Housewives), an Olympic athlete who finds herself at the center of a violent incident. Eventually, most of these characters cross paths with one another in some way, and one of the film's greatest virtues is the way it keeps surprising us in this department. We expect these stories to overlap, but usually not in the way they end up overlapping.
The characters range from well-developed to stereotypical, and that lack of consistency extends to the movie as a whole. For every clever line of dialogue or witty rejoinder, we're treated to a groan-inducing clunker. For every moment that feels real and genuine, there's another one that feels artificial. This is a movie that makes room for honest emotions AND comical dog reaction shots. I suppose I liked more than I disliked, mostly because the movie surprised me more often than it didn't. It tries too hard to ape Tarantino's signature style (the producers ditched a perfectly solid Jerry Goldsmith score in favor of a “hipper” blues-rock score and Tarantino-style needle drops) and it's not as hip as it thinks it is, but it's not all empty calories. That may sound dismissive, but when it comes to Pulp Fiction wannabes, “not all empty calories” is practically a rave.
2 Days in the Valley
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Year: 1996