A lightly fiesty performance by Leslie Uggams in the title role and a general feel-good vibe are the chief recommendations of “Dotty & Soul,” a plucky but corny comedy from actor turned writer, director and star Adam Saunders.
The movie’s got some clever plot ideas and the odd moment of amusing sass from Uggams, a veteran of 1960s TV who’s had a career renaissance thanks to a killer recurring character in “Deadpool” and TV’s “Empire.” The reliably vile David Koechner makes an amusing fat cat villain. But the script doesn’t have much spark, and Saunders, writing himself a co-starrring role, never rises above “bland” as a screen presence and comic foil.
Saunders plays Ethan Cox, a hotshot Dallas tech entrepreneur whose Big Idea is a self-driving luxury car non-sharing ride-share company. Private Car will pick you up and deliver you in style in a Ferrari, a high end Beemer or in Ethan’s case, a vintage self-driving Bentley.
Now a big ride-share operator wants to buy him and his venture capital backer Brannigan (Koechner) out.
Uggams is Dotty, a 71 year-old vending machine franchisee and general fixer for her wide circle of mostly elderly, working class friends, including the residents of Creekside Nursing Home, where Ethan’s mom (dementia) lives and old Mr. Eichelbaum (M. Emmet Walsh) pushes her wheelchair and nurses his diabetes between Dotty’s snack-machine replenishings.
The great coup that makes Private Car so valuable and a company for “the future” is a local ordinance Ethan and Brannigan pushed through in a tony Dallas suburb, banning “public transportation.”
His high-end ride share service just might be the only game in town, thanks to that. And if that ordinance isn’t the most Texas thing ever, I don’t know what is. And like other legislation from that bad idea incubator state, it could catch on.
Dotty can’t get around without buses, and nobody in her income bracket could afford Private Car or any other pricy ride share alternative. She and her aspiring clothier daughter (Margot Bingham) are already way behind on the rent.
Not Ethan’s problem. He’s too busy wearing bedazzled cowboy pimpwear in the company of his influencer and “future trophy wife” (Alexis Ren), hitting the clubs, dropping the Benjamins.
Until, that is, a private party that he shows up for in Hammer pants sees him tempted to don blackface to complete the M.C. Hammer impersonation. He goes viral in a bad way, and could lose it all if he can’t find a “person of color” to be his “stooge” to front the company so that it can sell.
Hey Dotty, ol’ buddy, ol’pal!
She’s down to cover for his “tired ass white boy ignorance.” But it’s going to cost him.
And being a savvy businesswoman from an era when Black women didn’t get the same opportunities as Jewish frat-bros who change their name to “pass,” she’s got ideas and she’s not shy about shaking things up.
The banter here goes down easily — too easily.
“You’re faker’n a Chinatown handbag” is kind of “racist,” and worse, it’s as edgy as this thing gets. Even Koechner can’t kick things up to the notch they need to reach for “Dotty & Soul” (pun titles are almost always a mistake) to come off.
Saunders is never as colorful as his costumes and never lifts his performance to the height of his hairdo, making him the dead weight at the heart of a movie he wrote and directed as a stardom-making vehicle.
Which is a shame, because the movie has an earnest, class-divide/transportation “future” message. The packaging that message comes in is so watered-down it lands like a raindrop, not a comically cold ice bucket challenge shock.
Rating: unrated, PG-ish
Cast: Leslie Uggams, Adam Saunders, David Koechner, Margot Bingham, Alexis Ren and M. Emmet Walsh.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Adam Saunders. A Quiver release.
Running time: 1:28