Two middle-aged men decide to take a chance on themselves, swapping their dead-end lives for a shot at controlling their own destiny in an affable comedy that stars James Le Gros and Jesse Borrego. A throwback of sorts, Phoenix, Oregon tonally fits the types of indies Borrego (Lone Star, I Like it Like That) and especially Le Gros (Living in Oblivion, Floundering) made back in the 1990s, big-hearted and full of idiosyncratic characters.
In late middle age, lifelong friends Bobby (Le Gros) and Carlos (Borrego) are still living in Phoenix, their small hometown. Working at the same restaurant for the smarmy Kyle (Diedrich Bader), Bobby as a bartender and Carlos as a chef, it is a bearable but bleak existence. Both harbor dreams: Bobby spends his days in his cramped Air Stream trailer, working on a graphic novel, a long-gestating memoir with perhaps too much focus on his failed marriage. Carlos, whose exacting standards are constantly thwarted by Kyle’s insistence on stocking only cheaper—and inferior—ingredients, wants his own restaurant. When a dilapidated bowling alley comes on the market and they are able to pool their life savings with money from an angel investor found by their friend Tanya (Lisa Edelstein), it seems like the answer to an unspoken prayer.
Writer/director Gary Lundgren intersperses vivid scenes from Bobby’s novel into the action, but the most striking images are those within the bowling alley as these men discover a newfound passion for life. Both are a little bit too exacting for their own good – Carlos will not brook an ingredient as mundane as pepperoni on his artisanal pizzas, while Bobby turns up his nose at the idea of stocking Budweiser in the bar. Neither is a good negotiator, revealed as Al (a hilarious Kevin Corrigan), the repairman they hire to refurbish the lanes and pin setters, sets his price high and will not budge. As Tanya pitches in to help prepare for the opening, Bobby’s crush on her is only too evident.
The buoyant middle section of Phoenix, Oregon is pure delight as, little by little, Bobby and Carlos transform a seeming pipe dream into a tangible reality. The film hums with their pleasure and enthusiasm. Hovering over them as they work are the unspoken questions. Is this real? Can it last? Lundgren makes a lively game out of answering those questions. And he has cast his story well. Le Gros and Borrego are likable actors playing likable characters, but neither actor rests on his charm. Bobby has issues with trust and anger, and he allows his disappointments to fester into resentment. Carlo is far more optimistic, but his dreaminess can get in the way of his good sense.
Phoenix, Oregon feels as retro as Bobby and Carlos’ bowling alley. The essentially sunny outlook, the ensemble work, and its rich vein of goofy humor seem like throwbacks from another era. Not that that is bad thing. In the midst of pandemic, worldwide strife, and a dismal election year, a feel-good movie like this one is a welcome reminder that joy still exists, sometimes in the most unlikely places. –Pam Grady
Phoenix, Oregon is available on streaming and cable platforms. DVD and Blu-Ray editions are coming soon.