Movie review: ‘Pete Smalls Is Dead’

Writer-director Alexandre Rockwell, maker of humane comedies like Sundance prize-winner “In the Soup,” was one of the early leading lights of the American independent filmmaking scene, but he has long struggled to maintain his footing as a filmmaker. With “Pete Smalls Is Dead,” he is still stumbling.

A former screenwriter (Peter Dinklage) has his dog taken by loan sharks, and he returns to Los Angeles for the promise of quick money to help an old friend (Mark Boone Jr.) bury someone they both once knew. The film has a mangy, oddball energy when it focuses on the fractured friendship between Dinklage and Boone, as even the sight gag of the oversize Boone and smaller Dinklage riding on a moped has a startling amount of mileage to it. Lots of familiar faces pop up in small roles — Steve Buscemi, Seymour Cassel and others — while Theresa Wayman of local L.A. band Warpaint makes a big impression in a small roll as a laconic femme fatale.

Many of the film’s storytelling beats seems drawn perhaps a little too closely from “The Long Goodbye,” Raymond Chandler’s elegiac detective novel adapted into a classic by Robert Altman. Rockwell’s film might have been better off dropping its rueful, sour-grapes satire on Hollywood altogether, as it just feels artificial and forced.

“Pete Smalls Is Dead.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. At Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.