If you’re acquainted with any wannabe filmmakers, you may know the agony of listening to people spout movie jargon and watching them direct scenes for films that can never amount to more than an indulgent mess of amateur acting, clumsy technique, and flawed storytelling. One of the most hilarious and touching examinations of such misguided earnestness was seen in American Movie, Chris Smith’s 1999 documentary about filmmaker Mark Borchardt‘s quest to make a thriller called Coven.

Now imagine a lame drama about the making of a lame drama based on some dim crime, in which characters are not only themselves, but also fictionalized portrayals of themselves as well as actors doing the portraying. Or something like that.

This is the gimmick driving Monte Hellman‘s aptly titled muddle, Road to Nowhere. Rather than simply offering weak performances and brain-dead plot development, Hellman’s flick gives us multiple levels of these, with a generous side of moviemaking pretentiousness. Road to Nowhere jumps back and forth between its inner movie and the making of that movie without warning. Sometimes the only clue as to which you’re watching is the relative woodenness of the acting.

Aside from this device, there’s also Shannyn Sossamon, a very attractive, brooding brunette with a disarming smile that she can flash on demand — and repeatedly does. And there’s Cliff DeYoung, who starred in the 1973 TV movie Sunshine.

On the downside, there’s a murky plot involving gunshots heard inside some house at night, and a plane, and a lake, and some money, and a tunnel. And maybe Italy or Cuba and a guy with a hat. Much of the picture is dark and nondescript (or, as your filmmaker friend would protest, noir). The written-to-order music at the opening and closing credits sounds like a Ghost of Tom Joad-era Bruce Springsteen parody — not Tom Russell‘s finest work. There is, however, one excellent and breathtaking moment which lasts several seconds.

The most excruciating aspect of Road to Nowhere is Hellman’s penchant for holding shots longer than you can possibly stand, and then continuing to hold them that long again. This starts right away with the girl aiming a hair dryer at her face, and it happens so many more times that occasionally you’re sure the DVD is stuck, or that your time on earth may run out while watching a car park, or a guy walk down a long hotel hallway. Just trimming this excess alone might have saved 30 minutes of this two-hour ordeal.

The reason we rented this DVD was a two thumbs-up review from Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on Ebert Presents: At the Movies. Vishnevetsky called it a “pretty darned good movie.” After enduring it, we read Roger Ebert’s review. He called it “an exercise in frustrating audiences.”

I rate Road to Nowhere a star and a half out of four. It may not qualify as torture, but it’s about as enjoyable as a case of restless leg syndrome.

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