Title: Father of Invention
Director: Trent Cooper
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Heather Graham, Camilla Belle, Johnny Knoxville, Virginia Madsen, Craig Robinson, John Stamos, Michael Rosenbaum, Anna Anissimova
If one could entirely banish certain ideas for scenes from the minds of all screenwriters, then surely near the top of the list for such cinematic excommunication would be press conference confessionals, which at some point must have seemed really bold and original but by now almost without fail come across as lazy and pat — an entirely synthetic way to give an audience the feeling of a character-awakening conclusion without any of the heavy lifting that accompanies honest reflection. Such is the dispiriting end point for “Father of Invention,” a weird and fitfully fresh comedy with a name-heavy cast that almost methodically fumbles away a viewer’s engagement, leaving them chiefly with thoughts of what could have been.
Robert Axle (Kevin Spacey) is an ego-driven infomercial guru who made his fortune fabricating mash-up inventions that maximized “the atomic and molecular potential” of purchasers (think a pepper spray-camera hybrid, so that one could snap photos of their attacker). A class action lawsuit related to one of his products landed him in jail, however, and upon getting out eight years later his wife Lorraine (Virginia Madsen) is remarried to Jerry (Craig Robinson). Robert lands a job working retail at a wholesale discount store under the high-strung Troy Coangelo (Johnny Knoxville), and his semi-estranged daughter Claire (Camilla Belle), now 22, grants him a place to live. But Robert almost immediately butts heads with one of Claire’s roommates, lesbian gym teacher Phoebe (Heather Graham), and has no luck in extracting any money from Lorraine. His big dream is to get back into business, so Robert starts hitting the pavement and trying to come up with partners and financial backers for a new idea. Will a return to some of his old habits, however, land him back in trouble?
Spacey is custom-built for a character like Axle — half heart, and half ambitious hucksters — and he anchors ”Father of Invention” with aplomb. The other performances, however, don’t always feel like they’re from the same movie; everyone is kind of doing their own shtick, even if generally decent joke-writing gives the actors piecemeal opportunities to shine. Director Trent Cooper (“Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector”) cycles through a lot of set-ups (somewhat refreshingly, the movie isn’t afraid to haul in a new character or setting for a joke), but after a while the narrative just comes across as manic and unfocused. There are so many elements to serve — from father/daughter reconciliation and a pending bankruptcy by Lorraine and Jerry to an eventual thawing and flirtation between Robert and Phoebe and even the parental divorce of Claire’s other roommate — that “Father of Invention” takes on the quality of a term paper thrown together at the last minute, all unconnected facts and half-baked assertions.
Does the movie desire to be a wacky ensemble comedy? Does it want to be a comedic-leaning tale of familial redemption? Or is it more expressly about Robert’s professional re-boot, and journey? The filmmakers can’t quite decide, ultimately, so a viewer — even though quite entertained early on – mostly just stops caring. The end credits, however, provide one of the year’s most interesting cinematic duets, giving Madsen and Robinson a chance to exercise their musical chops.
Written by: Brent Simon