Film Review: Austin Found

A bumpy ride to Coen country, the kidnapping caper Austin Found squanders a dialed-in Linda Cardellini performance on a barren premise.
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In the classic Coen Brothers’ comedy Raising Arizona, hapless married couple H.I. and Ed McDunnough got a bad idea for a kidnapping while watching the local TV news. So does the brazen criminal mastermind at the center of Austin Found—hapless, unhappily married mom Leanne Wilson (Linda Cardellini)—also take inspiration from a local news story in hatching her own doomed kidnapping scheme.

Whereas Ed and H.I.’s harebrained plot imploded almost as soon as the couple crossed paths with a pair of H.I.’s former prison buddies, in Austin, Leanne first has to seduce an ex-convict into doing her bidding. The film, directed and co-written by Will Raee, gives Leanne exactly one scene to: reunite with her still-pining auto-mechanic ex, Billy (Skeet Ulrich, playing dilapidated teen idol); convince Billy of her devotion and burning attraction to him, over her milquetoast husband, Donald (Jon Daly); and persuade Billy to assist in carrying out her ill-conceived plan to fake-kidnap her kiddie-pageant queen daughter, Patty (Ursula Parker, quite good).

Because Leanne is more convincing than the blonde wig planted on Cardellini throughout this picture, the femme fatale hastily ensnares her pigeon. So Billy’s the ex-con who has to round up a former prison buddy, J.T. (Craig Robinson), and ensure that this entire flimsy criminal enterprise implodes. It does, eventually, although not quickly or creatively enough to be plausible. While Leanne hustles to spin Patty’s weeks-long “disappearance” into press, celebrity and a book deal, she’s shadowed by Nancy (Kristen Schaal), an ambitious local TV-news reporter, driven by deep-seated resentment towards her ex-classmate Leanne.

Nancy stays hotter on the trail of the truth than the local authorities, who are ineffectual, to say the least. Led by unflappable Chief Williams (Patrick Warburton), the police search somewhere off-screen for the missing pre-teen, who meanwhile develops a cutesy rapport with J.T., the ex-con who didn’t actually kidnap her but really is, in accordance with her mother’s instructions, holding her captive inside a remote cabin.

Perhaps the worst thing that could happen for this outlandish caper feature is that it should take itself too seriously—which is exactly what happens, although not consistently. Rather, the tone vacillates from zany to sardonic to flatly dramatic. Dark and mordantly arch touches like a deadpan montage of missing-kid tropes (press conference, candlelit vigil, search party, motto: Pray for Patty) mingle with the dismayingly joke-free development of the friendship between the young hostage and her teddy-bear captor. There’s something more than a little off about a seemingly lighthearted crime romp that fills its roster with proven comic talents like Robinson, Schaal and Warburton, then dries out the humor beyond the point of dehydration.

The film similarly wastes Austin, Texas, as the self-proclaimed capital of weird is cast as the locale for this crazy tale, but none of the city’s noteworthy spirit or personality plays into the story. In fact, the stiff and airless framing of most shots doesn’t allow for any intrusion from Austin, or the world outside Leanne’s machinations.

Cardellini—despite the handicap of a voluminous hairpiece which can’t be clearly identified as being the character’s bad hair, or the production’s—pours affecting sincerity into an engrossing performance as the extremely insincere Leanne. It’s a tense, watchable turn made for the sort of melodrama that wins Hilary Swank Academy Awards, but incongruous here, as many elements are in this abduction comedy-turned-thriller. Ultimately, Leanne’s fake kidnapping plot leads to murder, and as plans unravel, the movie makes the mistake of remaining invested in its anti-heroine’s conscience long after her actions have made it clear that she has none. Sometimes reason demands just abandoning a character’s soul to the fate of all incompetent evildoers, and moving on to the next caper.

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