Film Review: Wheeler

Vanity project by Stephen Dorff showcases the talented star/co-writer as undercover musician, playing to Nashville audiences under makeup and prosthetics as the fictional Wheeler Bryson. Great art project. Bafflingly egotistical drama.
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An art project more than a movie drama, Wheeler perpetrates an audacious idea: An actor, undercover, assumes a fictional singer-songwriter persona and makes it in the music industry as if it tweren't nothin'. It's sort of been done before, with the 2007 comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, starring John C. Reilly as the titular made-up music legend. The crucial difference is that Reilly, director Jake Kasdan and writers Kasdan and Judd Apatow incisively and hilariously spoofed the "rags-to-riches showbiz biopic," whereas Wheeler mastermind Stephen Dorff and director and co-writer Ryan Ross—formerly Dorff's personal assistant—embrace it so hard it becomes self-parody.

Done in faux-documentary style, Wheeler stars Dorff, under makeup and prosthetics, as 41-year-old Wheeler Bryson of Kaufman, Texas, who is just coming out of a six-year fog after some unspeakable tragedy. With his off-screen friends Bobby and Mack as production crew, we see Wheeler drive to Nashville and in a matter of days and a couple of open-mic performances he befriends famous country-music songwriter Bobby Tomberlin (as himself), who introduces him to real-life Nashville Songwriters Association director Bart Herbison, who introduces him to real-life Curb Records chief Jim Ed Norman, who gets him in the studio and everyone sings his praises.

And, boy, do they. "When I met Wheeler, he kind of filled a void," Tomberlin—one of the executive producers and certainly in on the act—tells the camera. "I needed his songs and I needed him in my life," says Herbison. Elsewhere we hear, "There's nobody like Wheeler." "I'm glad that the world gets to have his music now." And, of course, "Handsomest man I'd ever seen." Leaving aside Dorff's genuinely transformative performance and his creditable music and songwriting skills, the rest of the film is one of the most masturbatory, self-congratulatory puff jobs I've ever seen.

Dorff and Tomberlin have spoken about how the film's club audiences didn't know they were seeing an actor playing a musician, and who likely assumed the camera-people were just the guy's friends shooting YouTube video. But it's safe to presume that the music-industry big shots weren't being punked, since while Dorff, the son of a country-music and TV-theme writer, proves a decent songwriter himself, his original works for the movie are hardly the second coming of Kristofferson.

As it happens, Kris Kristofferson himself does make a brief appearance 80 minutes in—hardly enough to justify his being second-billed. And it might have been better if the 80-year-old icon, who has been struggling with debilitating Lyme disease, had opted out, since it is truly sad and painful to see this living legend croaking through a song.

You do have to give Dorff props for an acting exercise that showcases just how talented he is. But the infinite-mirrors vanity of scripting music-industry bigwigs to fawn all over you is astonishing. And while I can't speak authoritatively of whiskey-soaked nights nursing heartbreak in a honky-tonk, I do know that being "real" and "genuine," as Wheeler keeps getting told he is, doesn't involve fooling folk and practically begging, "Tell me how good I am!"

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