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Review: In 'Small Time,' the salesmen make a pitch for your heart

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Don't let the title of this indie gem fool you, "Small Time" has humor and heart big time.

The first feature film from veteran TV writer Joel Surnow, co-creator of the Fox drama series "24," which will "Live Another Day" starting in May, takes us back to the '70s and the summer after high school graduation that Surnow spent with his dad, a small-time salesman.

With that as a loose starting point, Surnow has gone completely fictional in wonderfully warm ways. Most of the movie unfolds on the one used-car lot in California that I promise you will come to love. It's run by two middle-aged rascals, Al Klein (Christopher Meloni) and Ash Martini (Dean Norris), who could, as the modified saying goes, sell ice to Alaskans.

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It is fitting that "Small Time" opens by giving us a taste of Al and Ash's selling style, although shtick is probably more on point.

Here's the scene: Late night on the deserted lot. Rich kid tries to boost a cool car. Gets caught by Ash. Al is called in to negotiate terms. Then the kicker. It's a great one — I'd tell you, but it would ruin the fun.

That clever and caustic twist, though, sets the tone — and the pace. The film, like "24," speeds along.

The next day barely dawns when Al and Ash must get themselves out of a bind; it's a pattern. Al has managed to get the time of his son's high school graduation wrong. They are coming just as everyone else is leaving. And yet, as they will do countless times during the film, they'll talk their way out of it.

Freddy (Devon Bostick) is just glad to see his dad there. Al's ex-wife Barbara (Bridget Moynahan) clearly stopped counting on Al a long time ago. Barbara's well-heeled husband, Chick (Xander Berkeley), is just as clearly irritated by Al's very presence. It's a pretty typical post-divorce family reunion with all the old grudges right below the surface.

The grudges don't stay buried long because Freddy drops a bomb. With all of his high school graduate surety, he announces he'll forgo college in the fall and instead move in with his dad and better still join Al and Ash on the lot as a used-car salesman. You can imagine how happy this makes Mom, with Moynahan excellent at making peeved interesting rather than irritating, which would have been the stereotypical play.

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The bulk of the film is about Freddy's initiation into the used-car sales trade and the bachelor life that Ash, in particular, relishes: poker games with the guys, drinks at a dive bar, cruising for girls ….

For Al it's a second chance at fatherhood, real fatherhood, which at some point begins to require him to make tough and unpopular decisions. The writer-director does a good job of making that journey insightful as well as entertaining.

Surnow is helped by having such a solid cast. Whether you know Meloni from his many standout roles in series TV, including his killer run on HBO's "Oz" and the 12 years he spent on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" or as Col. Nathan Hardy in last year's "Man of Steel," the actor knows how to hold the screen with a look. That inner core of strength Meloni emanates serves "Small Time" Al well, because despite all the joking around, life is giving the guy one heck of a beating.

Norris has a different but no less commanding way of acting. There's a kind of cynicism and swagger that he makes seem so natural. It came in handy for his hard-bitten DEA agent in "Breaking Bad," and it definitely suits Ash, which is truly one of the coolest character names ever.

Bostick, probably best known as the terrorizing older brother in the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" films, is a gangly delight. He's got a great comic sensibility that can turn to wounded sensitivity in a heartbeat, which is pretty much Freddy's two major emotional states that fraught summer.

Perhaps the smartest thing about "Small Time" is that it does not try to do too much. It is happy with its little slice of life. And I'm happy to say that slice is a tasty one.

Meanwhile, I can't wait to see what Surnow has in mind for Kiefer Sutherland's next "24" hours.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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'Small Time'

MPAA rating: R for some sexual references

Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes

Playing: At Laemmle Pasadena 7, also available on VOD and iTunes

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