The town of Jackpot, Nev., lies some fifty miles south of Twin Falls. By similar reckoning, Jackpot, the second feature by twin filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish, lies a good deal south of their 1999 debut, Twin Falls Idaho: It’s as self-consciously arty and fragmented as Twin Falls was controlled and organically built.
Jackpot’s opening scene alone is disjointed enough to bring on a genre-induced seizure. In a busy collage of repeated images and sounds (the word ”f—” provocatively prominent among them), a man with an itchy rewind finger compulsively replays an audiotape snippet of a George Jones song. He’s the self-monikered Sunny Holiday (Twin Falls alumnus and balding Everyman Jon Gries), a fantasist in a cowboy hat who has abandoned his wife (Daryl Hannah) and toddler daughter to pursue his dream of becoming a country & western singer.
In bald fact, Sunny is that jackpot American self-creation, a karaoke singer who only thinks he’s George Jones. Sunny’s a dreamer, a loser, a mimic of other people’s styles; in a larger city he might be a game show contestant. Yet his uncynical obsession is exactly what makes him attractive to the hard-bitten women who plop themselves in his path. (In addition to Hannah, the windfall cast of abandoned actresses playing bruised dames includes Peggy Lipton and Crystal Bernard.)
Sometimes Sunny gets lucky, winning the night’s song competition. Sometimes he gets lucky, bedding a local lady, or flirting with her Lolita of a daughter. Sometimes he just gets screwed over. When he’s not singing or seducing, he motors from one sad-ass Western city to another accompanied by his natty, hustling manager, Lester (much-missed SNL original Garrett Morris, a substantial actor overdue for a career comeback). And when the two aren’t doing that, they sell all-purpose soap from the trunk of their 1983 pink Chrysler. Meanwhile, dreaming of bingo luck of the highest order, Sunny mails lottery tickets to his angry wife.
Jackpot is populated with the kind of desolate-carnival characters Diane Arbus loved to photograph, but director Michael Polish and cinematographer M. David Mullen can’t quite convince us that they’re not simply swayed by freak-show appeal and the chance to art-direct scenes of pretty sadness. (The project is shot in high-definition video, intrinsic to the look of misery under a microscope.) And that detached, rather bloodless fascination encourages performances of showy triviality, particularly by ER’s Anthony Edwards, who seems enchanted by his own physical business as Sunny’s mentally limited brother.
Still, for all its flaws, Jackpot isn’t an entirely losing number. That emerging filmmakers (or novelists or playwrights, for that matter) with strong voices should stumble suggests no permanent failure of compass or long-term loss of direction. The Polish brothers are on the map. Now they just have to figure out where they want to go.