A comedy of Yankee errors
"Live Free or Die" has picked up some brutal reviews from other critics around the country ("criminally short on laughs," Variety ). That's probably because they've never been to New Hampshire.
If you have been to that fine state immediately to our north -- better yet, if you've escaped -- this crime comedy will have the squalid, bitterly funny ring of truth. Like a 1972 Dodge that's been up on blocks in a front yard off a state highway, "Live Free" takes an awfully long time to start up. Its timing isn't great, either, but it gets you to the state liquor store and that's what counts.
Aaron Stanford ("Tadpole ," the "X-Men " movies) is intentionally miscast as John "Rugged" Rudgate , the scourge of Rutland, N.H. (played convincingly by the town of Claremont , just over the border from Vermont). His legend precedes and overshadows him; in reality, he's a shrimp, a coward, and a motormouth. He's not even a criminal, since the "hot" speakers he sells from the back of his rusted blue van have been legally purchased.
Rugged would die of shame if you knew that, though, since he aims to be the baddest mother in the state. He's got the New Hampshire gangsta look -- knit hat, at least three shirts, tattered parka -- and he claims to have killed a logger or two. When he runs into a thick-witted high school acquaintance named Jeff (Paul Schneider ) who just inherited a self-storage facility, Rugged spies a chance to get a piece of the action.
First, though, he has to prove his manliness against a local Bluto (R.E. Rodgers ), which results in a sequence of mishaps that include murder, breaking and entering, and the theft of vintage pornography. Events don't escalate in "Live Free and Die" so much as devolve in a slow-motion daisy chain of ineptitude. To do something right would probably mean you're from Connecticut.
Stanford is amusing as this preposterous wannabe -- a Yorkie trying to act like a pit bull -- but Schneider makes the part of the hero's sidekick into something special. Always a half beat behind the rest of the characters, he's like Art Carney stuck in molasses. As Jeff's sister, Zooey Deschanel ambles through a few scenes and immediately raises the film's IQ by 50 points.
The minor characters are hit-and-miss. Michael Rapaport can't do much with the underwritten part of a jealous policeman, but Ebon Moss-Bachrach is unsettling as a local thug of the sort Rugged aspires to be, and Judah Friedlander ("American Splendor ") is truly sleazy as a hardware store proprietor. From his greasy muttonchops to his imitation Stephen King horn-rims, he captures a very particular Granite State retail truculence. I bought a used car from this guy once, and I got hosed.
"Live Free or Die" -- named for New Hampshire's motto, which is stamped onto state license plates by prison inmates -- has been written and directed by former "Seinfeld" writers Gregg Kavet and Andy Robin . The film has the same sense of dryly observed entropy as the show's final episode, the one that angered the faithful by stranding Jerry and company in a small Massachusetts town.
Kavet and Robin just set the inaction a little farther north, in the land of no taxes and less hope. Clearly they're hoping for another "Fargo," but they don't even make it across the river to Bellows Falls . This isn't a great movie -- it's barely good, really -- but it gets something about New Hampshire I've rarely seen onscreen: a defiant pride in the way things don't work out. "Live Free" is a comedy of vastly diminished criminal expectations. That's the fun of it, and the frustration, too.