Movie Review: Fargo and Fargoans are still punchlines in the making-bad-theater farce “Tankhouse

“Tankhouse” is the sort of indie comedy one often encounters in film festivals. Come up with a daffy setting and/or conceit, sign a few “names” (Joey Lauren Adams, Richard Kind and Christopher Lloyd) for bit parts to get it financed. Film it on the cheap in an out-of-the-way place, push it onto the film festival circuit and hope a distributor picks it up.

It’s a farce about acting and pretentious actors set “North of Normal,” aka Fargo, North Dakota, with a script that’s somewhat south of Christopher Guest, whose late, lamented ensemble farces began with a send up of bad small-town theater, “Waiting for Guffman.”

Hit or miss, miss or hit, “Tankhouse” would seem a natural for festivals in Sarasota or Charlottesville, Little Rock or Fargo, seeing as how it’s a comedy revolving around the art deco Fargo Theatre. That’s where “Tankhouse” is slated to premiere tonight, a venue that’s also host to the Fargo Film Festival.

Two little-know stars — Tara Holt and Stephen Friedrich — play struggling New York actors who’d be the last to admit they’re “struggling,” students of the avant garde who practice “immersive theater attack” acting, dragging the audience into their leotarded iambic pentameter nonsense wherever the space allows theater to “happen” — in a large public restroom, on a rooftop.

Tucker Charlemagne (Friedrich), as he bills himself, is director, actor and dramaturg with The Confidential Collective, a troupe associated with the Artist’s Atelier, run by ancient acting teacher Buford (Lloyd). Buford is pretentious, Tucker more so. Sandrene (Holt)? She’s pretentious by association.

An accident during one of their rooftop shows leads to a company coup, and the two stars are kicked out. As her parents (Joey Lauren Adams of “Chasing Amy,” and Andy Buckley) aren’t willing to prop up their pipe dreams any longer, there’s nothing for Sandrene and Tucker but to decamp to Sandrene’s hometown, Fargo, where there’s a competition to select the resident theater company for the famed Fargo Theatre.

They need to recruit a cast from open mike night at the local Sons of Norway lodge. They’ll have to rehearse in the old distillery room, “tankhouse,” out back, where manager (Alas!) Yorick, played by Joe Adler in a thick accent, ferments homemade aquavit, just like they drink and/or refill car batteries with back in Scandinavia.

All they have to do is beat out Sandrene’s old high school drama teacher (Richard Kind) and his Gilbert & Sullivan-loving Red River Players — “Cowards! Conformists!” Tucker labels them — and they’ll have a place to make theater and launching spot for their theater “revolution.”

The players will need to foil dirty tricks by the “sweet” old drama teacher they’re in competition with. They’ll need to master “theater of movement” and the teachings of “Lee” to be competition-ready. But um, who’s “Lee?”

“Lee! Lee STRASBERG! The founder of ‘The Method!'”

“‘The Method?’ Isn’t that what killed that ‘Joker’ guy?”

“YES! That’s how you knew he was doing it CORRECTLY!”

This, perhaps the best dead Heath Ledger joke ever, is the funniest line in “Tankhouse.”

Director and co-writer (with Chlesea Frei) Noam Tomaschoff uses animation, the overly plummy, unironic Master Thespian voice-over narration of Tucker Charlemagne and assorted theatrical “types” and situations to deliver laughs, and frankly not enough of these elements pay off and the picture staggers to a halt just over halfway in.

But “Tankhouse” had possibilities. It’s set in Fargo, even if makes very little comic hay out of the accent or culture shock the city and state still embody. It taps into something theater fans and indie comedy buffs will recognize and instantly puts us on its wavelength. We’ve all run into a “Tucker,” in the cities or in the provinces, “making THEA-tuh” and dreaming dreams.

“This could be our GLOBE! But you know, less flammable!

I saw my first “avant garde” theater in North Dakota, and sipped (and spat out) my first aquavit there. I’ve been to plays staged in storefronts, alleys and on rooftops. And a well-established theater I’ve been to in a small Florida city was set up in an old icehouse and is thus named “The Icehouse.

Like Guest’s “Guffman,” the situations are recognizably real and within-the-realm-of-possibility daft, and the cast is game if not nearly as funny as Guest’s repertory company.

The script, alas, runs out of funny situations too quickly, and without those, funny lines become sparse as “Tankhouse” lurches into the later acts towards its wholly inevitable conclusion.

I dare say more research would have helped the co-writers. Stop by any community theater/Little Theater /experimental commercial or academic “Black Box” theater in North America and you’d hear funnier anecdotes than much of what’s portrayed here.

Parking your leads in front of a sign that says “Welcome to Fargo, North of Normal” isn’t enough, although as the Coen Brothers could attest, Fargo is one of the great city-names-as-punchlines — like Walla Walla, Oshkosh or Okahumpka.

But that’s the thing about punchlines. You can only use them once, and you can’t let them die of loneliness.

Rating: Rated R for some sexual references

Cast: Tara Holt, Stephen Friedrich, Austin Crute, Devere Rogers, Luke Spencer Roberts, Sarah Yarkin, Alex Esola, Nadia Alexander, Rachel Mathews, Joe Adler, Joey Lauren Adams, Richard Kind and Christopher Lloyd.

Credits: Directed by Noam Tomaschoff, scripted by Noam Tomaschoff, Chelsea Frei . A Vertical release.

Running time: 1:33

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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