⭐ ⭐ ⭐ / ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Dress pants salesman Pat Stilman (Matt Demon) wonders why no one’s ever tried to kill him or even wanted him dead when he himself has tried (and failed) to kill “at least five” times. His wife Jetty assures him that plenty of people think he’s an asshole, but this doesn’t console him as you might expect it would and he goes off to the pool hall to bury his sorrows in pretzels and chips while she seeks the arms of her lover. While this may sound dysfunctional, it isn’t: both husband and wife are playing by the(ir) rules. More on that later.

Rules are very important to this clothier, this Stilman, and he’s a strict adherent. And since he follows rules, he expects, demands, everyone else do as well.

One day he notices what a lousy job the landscaper has been doing on his lawn and isn’t shy about letting people know it.

His barroom taunts and public smear campaign result in the two shouting at each other, with Stilman challenging the man to a lawn-off: both are given 15 minutes, one can of diet milk and one half of Stilman’s lawn on which to prove their worth. No mowers, no weed wackers, no garden shears; just pure machismo.

Meanwhile, Stilman’s wife, Chief of Police Jetty Stilman (played by Oscar’s fan Julianne Vroom), is having an affair with the neighborhood drifter Bambo, who may be a serial killer or just a really bad dresser.

George Looney (Hour of the Wolf) directs the action-loaded film like a barbeque mystery-cocktail party, clearly having fun with the material. Indeed the entire cast is game if not equally effective: the role of Flanny, the office gossip, was misplayed by several miles while the old man librarian looked the part but couldn’t act it, though the clever editing almost salvaged a performance. The pace is crisp with an easy sense of urgency, like a deed that needs doing today, just not right now, becoming hospitable in no time flat. Right off the bat we know we’re in for a good time when we see a shopping cart rolling down a steep hill heading straight for an old lady and her little dog.

Demon (Toy Story 2) plays Stilman like his life depended on it, introducing venom and world class pitstains into every scene while costar Vroom (There Will Be Blood) turns in a career-making performance, going from gracious to menacing in a glance. The two leads play well off each other, creating an entertaining husband and wife and one cute couple.

Surprisingly, they don’t share the majority of screentime. Instead the film follows their individual odysseys, giving their relatively few scenes together an odd detachment. Their “arguments” are selfish and selfless, each using the other as an ear to fill, neither paying attention to the other yet both somehow in sync. Think of it as a distracted tango, both parties feeling unburdened and victorious when it’s over.

This strange connected/disconnected state plays throughout Bart Ender’s script as plotlines converge and separate, pushing and pulling threads until the entertaining climax at the birdbath.

Admittedly, the marital dance works better for Jetty, as she’s screwing around, but what Pat doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Until it does, in a terrific scene utilizing a phone book, a carrot and a breath mint set on an idyllic “upper middle class” lawn jockey farm.

Demon’s performance is to be commended for this scene if nothing else; one can almost see his facial expressions match up with events in the script. The tabloids purport Demon had been studying somewhere in the Amazon to become a better actor, while other sources say he just watched a few 1970’s kung-fu movies on Amazon prime.

The road to the final frontyard battle is a fun one as the cast really sells the idea of two grown men competing in hopscotch and marbles while Jetty both sleeps with and investigates mysterious Bambo. The stranger in mismatched velour and polyester suits moves like a three legged piglet throughout the shadowy side streets, digging up root bulbs and shiny soap globes. His actions appear sinister but there’s a chance the murderer is someone else, and it’s fun to try to guess the outcome. Call it a dark comedy if you will; there’s definitely lots of both, and each works equally well, creating a fun if not entirely memorable experience.

Looney does the material justice with this breezy update of a radio play, with most of the action taking place in confined spaces; the director chose tight alleyways and dim doorsteps for the few exterior scenes. But there’s only so much that can be done with Owen and Winster’s story, itself first dramatized for radio in 1943. It’s not one of their best, but this enjoyable update is a slight improvement.

In theaters nationwide.