Review: ‘Pete Smalls is Dead’

"Pete Smalls is Dead nearly kills itself with an overdose of cutesy mainlined hipsterism."

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Following a long tradition of ultra-quirky indie crime comedies, Alexandre Rockwell’s Pete Smalls is Dead threatens to drown in its own affected peculiarity. This is one of those films where none of the characters resemble actual people, per se, but are instead individualized and specially named piles of bizarro habits, constructed by painfully self-aware filmmakers especially for the dogged hipsters and manic pixies in the audience. And while films like this can be praised for their attempt at an original aesthetic, and can be accused of having something on their minds for the mere fact that they are comically impenetrable, they are merely following the decades-old tradition of weirding up a film merely to make its poorly thought out story seem like it has merit. Pete Smalls is Dead nearly kills itself with an overdose of cutesy mainlined hipsterism.

Consider this: When our two heroes go to the funeral of the title character, it’s in a small, white room, Rosie Perez sits up front slowing off her cleavage, and all the guests are wearing white cardboard headpieces with question marks over their faces. Had the film a more surreal tone, this scene could have left one feeling pleasantly off-balance. As it stands, it’s just another pointless affect in a film full of them. Add to this a musical score that consists of nothing but whacked out white jazz, and a large retinue of public domain yodeling, and you’ll start wondering how Zooey Deschanel or Chloe Sevigny or Parker Posey avoided being in this.

Pete Smalls follows a sad sack laundromat owner named KC, played by Peter Dinklage. I’ll say this for the film: Dinklage, a soulful dwarf actor, is rarely addressed by his height. This is one of the only instances in film history that I can recall where someone is incidentally a dwarf. Hear hear. KC owes $10,000 to a loan shark, and said shark has taken KC’s beloved dog Buddha hostage until he can pay back his debt. KC goes to L.A. to meet his friend, the even sadder sack Jack (Mark Boone Junior), who is fat, drives a moped, carries glow-sticks everywhere he goes, and relates to other human beings so poorly he seems to have some sort of autism. The two of them attend the funeral of their film mogul buddy, Pete Smalls (Tim Roth in flashbacks and news broadcasts), and find that Pete may have bequeathed KC the valuable rights of an unproduced Hot Property that KC write years ago.

The search for this property leads Jack and KC to the local Armenian mob (represented by Seymour Cassel), a pair of slimy producers (Michael Lerner and Steve Buscemi in a bad wig and neck brace), a mysterious French wisp (Theresa Wayman, doing her best Anna Karina impersonation), and a legitimately tough and possibly homosexual mobster of indeterminate origin (Richie Coster). There’s also Jack’s teenage daughter (Emily Rios), Rosie Perez, and a pizza joint that dresses its employees as pandas. The search is so weird and bug-nutty that by the time our heroes make their way to Mexico in search of the missing dog, you’ll be fighting to care. Even when a late Jodorowsky-inspired carnival makes an appearance, you’ll be a little too loopy to figure out what’s going on.

Pay attention to Dinklage. He is the rock of this film. In a sea of unneeded weirdness, he comes across as the only self-aware character with any shreds of sanity. Dinklage has always been a powerful actor with a strong face and an undeniable presence. How nice that he can play the lead role in any film. When Dinklage says he only cares about getting his dog back, we feel he means it. 

As a showcase for interesting individual scenes, Pete Smalls is Dead may work. As the crime story it wants to be, though, it is convoluted and pointedly opaque. As the comment on Hollywood corruption it wants to be, it falls flat.