Movie Review: ‘Hard Sell’

“Hard Sell” features a pretty decent cast doing its best with some potentially interesting roles—Skyler Gisondo (“The Amazing Spider-Man”) as a put-upon, voice-cracking teen, Katrina Bowden (“30 Rock”) as a mysterious drifter, and Kristin Chenoweth cast against type as a mentally ill Long Island mom—but they are caught in a rambling, shapeless dramedy that, despite its good intentions, never manages to generate any steam.

Things start off as a kind of quirky odd-couple comedy, pairing Gisondo’s pubescent schmuck with Bowden’s aloof older hottie. To earn a little money Gisondo starts acting as a quasi-pimp, rounding up his horny prep school classmates to drop a bit of cash in exchange for a glimpse of Bowden’s boobs. It’s all fairly harmless and, despite a potentially icky premise, writer-director Sean Nalaboff manages to avoid the leering quality of, say, “Porky’s.” Unfortunately, he also manages to avoid that film’s actual laughs. Instead, he rounds up a bunch of time-killing subplots (love interest, sick mom, sick dog, overbearing school administration, etc.) that sap the film of any real momentum.

Meanwhile Bowden’s character spends a lot of the film dispensing advice to Gisondo’s classmates, solving all their petty high school problems with a bit of sage counsel. Rather than the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, she’s a stripper with the wisdom of Solomon. In fact, she’s got her own baggage, which the film treats coyly even though there’s really not much surprise. But there is a clever idea in this—that even a twentysomething whose life is a complete mess is still wiser than even the most privileged high schooler. In many ways, the gulf between the a 24-year-old and a 14-year-old is probably greater than the gulf between a 14-year-old and a 4-year-old.

“Hard Sell” is at its best in these scenes, with Bowden just confidently gliding through a world of meaningless teen problems. If Nalaboff had focused his attention here, he might have had something distinctive. Instead, everyone has a problem to work through, leading to about five different emotional resolutions. Only the one involving Chenoweth really works. The one involving the school, which has Gisondo railing against conformist indoctrination, barely even makes sense. The movie ends up having the same cluttered, noncommittal feel of so many low-budget American indies. It tries to do much and ends up doing too little.

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