Say what you will about Pulp Fiction, it’s legacy is undeniable. Not only did it guarantee a sustainable career for writer-director Quentin Tarantino but it ushered in a bold and groundbreaking era of independent film. But as with every trend-setting movie, not only were there worthy successors but a slew of knockoffs and cheap imitations. In particular, films like Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead, Suicide Kings, and Boondock Saints showed that not everyone could pull of Tarantino’s knack for creating vivid characters engaging in jazz-like dialogue while navigating the criminal underworld and the occasional dead body.
One film that I feel gets unnecessarily lumped in with the “Pulp-less Fiction” is 2 Days in the Valley. From writer-director John Herzfeld (Don King: Only in America, 15 Minutes) comes this dark and funny series of tales of murder and mischief during 48 hours in San Fernando, California aka The Valley. Many critics decried the film for being a weak facsimile of Tarantino’s world of hitmen and burgers, but I found it to have more than enough charm along with an engaging and extensive cast.
The film is an enjoyable series of interconnected stories and characters, and like Hollywood Homicide and L.A. Story, captures the nuances of life in Hell-A. Los Angeles, from my experience, is a 24-hour world full of dreamers, schemers, and non-stop driving. 2 Days in the Valley captures that spirit in a way that has its fair share of violence and yet denotes a hint of worthy optimism.
There are many moving pieces in the plot, but the catalyst is when Teri Hatcher hires James Spader (100% swarmy) and his femme fatale partner Charlize Theron (in only her 2nd screen role) to off her parasitic ex-husband (Peter Horton). Spader enlists ex-Mafioso (Danny Aiello) for assistance/scapegoating only to have him escape and seek shelter with an obnoxious art dealer (Greg Cruttwell) and his long-suffering assistant (played lovingly by Glenne Headley).
Also, in the mix are Eric Stoltz and Jeff Daniels as your typical mismatched Vice cops, with Stoltz dreaming of moving to the Homicide division and Daniels nearing suspension who’s only solace is in cleaning up “the Valley.” We also get long time filmmaker Paul Mazursky playing a broken-down version of himself as Teddy Peppers, a washed-up director preparing to commit suicide who just happens upon the kind ears of a nurse played by the always welcoming Marsha Mason. Their scenes together ring of authenticity as two lost old souls as well as reverence for two old time Hollywood pros who have had their fair share of success and failure.
I’d rather not give too much more away because half the joy in 2 Days... is watching how these characters collide. Herzfeld is masterful in the way he maneuvers these characters and their stories, almost like a master stage director. Each story has a purpose and each character has just enough verve and intrigue for you to want to know more but respect the remaining mystery.
All the performances are uniformly effective but a few things worth noting:
- The no-holds barred fight between Hatcher and Theron is one for the ages. It has just the right balance of professional moves and human clumsiness to be both entertaining and shocking. Think a female version of Roddy Piper and Keith David from They Live.
- Danny Aiello reminding us what a caring and commanding performer he was. Yes, he’s playing a criminal but as we learn, a down on his luck one. His scenes with Headley are particularly satisfying.
- James Spader in full-on “sleeze” mode may seem too obvious as a professional hit man but he delivers every line with nuance and cunning. His monologue about giving each of his victims “1 Minute to live” is highly absorbing.
2 Days in the Valley may seem dated today, but I still believe it captures not only the essence of Los Angeles but the spirit of independent film in the late 90’s. Today’s world of film is overflowing with remakes, reboots, and every super hero that has ever been depicted in a comic book. Where are the original ideas? Where’s the artistically crafted dialogue? Where are the casts of actors and actresses ready to deliver a diverting world not based on superpowers or alien forces? It’s a troubling time for any film lover looking for originality or uniqueness. But I would at least settle for anything that evokes the goofy and grisly charm of 2 Days in the Valley.