In Steve Anderson's droll "The Big Empty," Jon Favreau's aspiring actor John Person, after a decade in Hollywood, has but two commercials and three segments in a canceled series to his credit. A sweet-natured teddy bear of a man, John nevertheless refuses to give up, but his nerdy next-door neighbor Neely (Bud Cort) has him nailed when he offers him a proposition that cannot be refused. Somehow Neely has managed to uncover every conceivable embarrassing personal thing about John to blackmail him into accepting a job that will pay him $25,000 just for delivering a suitcase to Baker, where he is to hand it over to a man called Cowboy. (Alas, John is as behind in his rent at Hollywood's landmark Alto Nido Apartments as William Holden's Joe Gillis was in "Sunset Blvd.")
John pulls into Arne's Royal Hawaiian Motel in Baker, desert pit stop halfway to Las Vegas and gateway to Death Valley, only to experience the first of just barely missed hookups with the mysterious Cowboy. This gives Anderson ample time for his shaggy-dog story to unfold one funny twist and turn after another as John encounters a series of colorful locals: the Royal Hawaiian's goofy, nosey manager (Jon Gries); Daryl Hannah's sleek, seen-it-all but warm-hearted bar proprietor; her teenage temptress adoptive daughter Ruthie (Rachael Leigh Cook); Ruthie's hot-headed boyfriend (Adam Beach); and a blue-collar guy (Brent Briscoe) who insists that the long-talked-about bullet train that would connect Southern California and Las Vegas is but a ploy to keep travelers from noticing UFO activity in the desert -- "the big empty," which is also a reputed dumping place for dead bodies.
Before John actually encounters Cowboy (Sean Bean), a Marlboro Man in a black leather duster, he is dismayed to find he is being tracked by a hilariously square but shrewd FBI agent, played with brio by Kelsey Grammer. In each case the casting of these roles is right on. Meanwhile, back at the Alto Nido, Grace (Joey Lauren Adams), the young woman who lives across the hall from John, is worried sick.
In his feature debut, Anderson combines a wacky sense of humor with an affectionate light touch. Surely, the desert is meant to reflect the "big empty" John feels inside himself, as does Ruthie for that matter, but Anderson refreshingly refuses to underline this notion. He does take a tack that's way, way out of left field, for which there has been some foreshadowing. "The Big Empty" has a seductive easiness (which may not be for everyone, but it works), a laid-back yet ever-so-slightly portentous score and a wonderful sense of place. This stopover town is appealingly open and casual, yet its citizens, especially bored teens like Ruthie, must envy the incessant flow of travelers heading to or from infinitely more exciting places.
The filmmakers' concern for amusing detail extends right down to the faux bamboo Italian Provincial bedroom set in John's motel room. (One can only hope that it's not just a set, that the rooms at the Royal Hawaiian, a real motel, are actually furnished this way, right down to the grass-skirted hula girl lamps.)
"The Big Empty" is much more a romantic fable than "Swingers," the singles comedy that established Favreau but has a similarly jovial, unpretentious charm.
'The Big Empty'
MPAA rating: R for language and some sexual dialogue.
Times guidelines: Some racy dialogue, four-letter words.
Jon Favreau...John Person
Kelsey Grammer...Agent Banks
Rachael Leigh Cook...Ruthie
An Artisan Entertainment presentation. Writer-director Steve Anderson. Producers Doug Mankoff, Gregg L. Daniel, Andrew Spaulding, Keith Resnick. Executive producers Steven Bickel, Jeffrey Kramer, Steven G. Kaplan, Peter Wetherell. Cinematographer Chris Manley. Editor Scot Scalise. Music Brian Tyler. Costumes Kristin M. Burke. Production designer Aaron Osborne. Art director Erin Cochran. Set decorator Missy Parker. Set designer Stephanie J. Gordon. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
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