Ever since seeing Michelle Monaghan in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005, I've been waiting for her to become a break-out star, to get the showcase roles she seems to deserve based on her fantastic performance in that seriously underrated movie. And since then she's certainly become more famous, and has racked up supporting roles in big movies, although she's almost always playing the girlfriend or the best friend or some such thing. Theoretically, then, Trucker ought to be that one great role than Monaghan and her fans have been waiting for since 2005: It's a serious, meaty drama with Monaghan in the lead; she's even a producer. Clearly this is a project she felt passionate about, one that she hoped would show everyone the kind of serious actor she can really be. The screener was the first one I got in the mail for the current awards season.
Too bad the movie sucks, then, and has been pretty much ignored in terms of awards and ticket sales (it never even opened in Vegas theaters). First-time writer-director James Mottern gets a few things right, starting with the gorgeous sun-dappled look of the cinematography, the right mix of grit and beauty, and the wonderfully evocative California desert locations. The movie starts out on the path to be something like another one of the last decade's most underrated films, Come Early Morning (written and directed by Trucker co-star Joey Lauren Adams), with Monaghan's gruff truck driver Diane sneaking out on a one-night stand and hauling her rig back to her modest ranch house in the desert. She drives, she drinks, she flirts with her married best friend (Nathan Fillion). Monaghan has the right mix of toughness and femininity (something that Ashley Judd balanced extremely well in Come Early Morning). The movie seems like it might shape up to be a solid, low-key character study.
And then, about 10 minutes in, the kid shows up. I knew it was coming, but it was still disappointing to watch the movie quickly devolve into a sappy reluctant-parent-bonds-with-kid movie, following every beat you expect from glossier Hollywood versions of the story. Stuck caring for the kid she gave up 10 years ago, Diane first resents him, then tolerates him, then comes to love him and, naturally, has to fight to keep him in the third act. The kid is played by the annoyingly cutesy Jimmy Bennett (star of the ultra-cloying Shorts), and his inherent phoniness consistently taints the rest of the characters. Monaghan tries way too hard to run the gamut of serious emotions, and Mottern throws in a last-minute act of violence that is cravenly manipulative and totally unforgivable. The great thing about Monaghan's performance in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was how effortlessly appealing it was; Trucker is all effort and no appeal.
Available on DVD January 5.