The man, the myth, the mustache: Frankly, it takes a lot for me to not recommend a movie starring Sam Elliott. Sadly, Off the Map, a good-looking yet overly stagy character piece set in the wilds of New Mexico, fits the bill. Despite an often-stunning sense of time and place, it can't escape some fatally stage-bound dialogue.
Set deep in the thick of the '70s (those with a phobia of beaded curtains and macramé knickknacks need not apply), director Campbell Scott's film follows the coming-of-age story of a tomboy growing up within an isolationist family that proudly lives without money, scrounging what they need from hunting, their garden, and occasional visits to the local dump.
The good news is that Scott is an intuitive filmmaker; working with cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia, he creates some lovely and startling color schemes in New Mexico's stunning wide-open spaces. In fact, Scott occasionally gets so blissed out on the mood he's creating that he loses the narrative thread entirely--these moments may actually be the best parts of the film. Unfortunately, such golden bits can't negate the cumulative effect of Joan Ackermann's script, which, as adapted from her play, contains enough twinkly magic realism to give Garrison Keillor a canker sore.
As for the actors, those with the least amount of lines tend to come off the best, especially the increasingly invaluable J. K. Simmons as a dimwitted friend of the family. Far less fortunate: The annoyingly precocious 11-year-old Valentina de Angelis, who has to shoulder the bulk of the verbal whimsy, and Joan Allen, who may have finally met her formidable match as an earth mother sharing a mystical bond with an embarrassed-looking coyote.
And then there's Elliott, as the chronically depressed, constantly crying father, who takes his stock character and transforms it into something honest-to-goodness tragic--when he breaks down, it's like watching Mount Rushmore crumble. Whenever he's on the screen, Off the Map's characters gain a slight toehold over the overwhelming preciousness of the script. Long live the 'stache.