Josh Bell

Baker deserves better. The little truck-stop town in the middle of the Mojave Desert, along I-15 between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, is the setting for writer-director Steve Anderson's debut film, The Big Empty. Having driven past and through Baker countless times, I was looking forward to Anderson's film, curious to see what he could do with the intriguing little town that's home to the Mad Greek, Alien Fresh Jerky and The World's Tallest Thermometer.

But Anderson squanders the setting's potential and a cast of indie-movie all-stars in his muddled and weak feature. He goes overboard on "quirky" with his story of struggling actor John Person (Jon Favreau), a guy down on his luck in Hollywood who gets the chance to make some quick cash by delivering a mysterious blue suitcase to a man known only as Cowboy (Sean Bean). John heads to Baker, where he's supposed to meet up with Cowboy and get his money. Naturally, things don't go as planned, and John ends up cooling his heels for a few days, bonding with the wacky locals and observing all sorts of odd occurrences.

Anderson goes for a Twin Peaks type of feel, populating the town with characters who are less than the sum of their quirks. John has a fling with free-spirited Ruthie (Rachael Leigh Cook), who simply wandered into town at age 2, and may or may not be from the great beyond. Once Cowboy finally shows up, the tone shifts from wacky fish-out-of-water comedy to Twilight Zone-style supernatural mystery, bringing in John's sweet next-door neighbor (Joey Lauren Adams) and a hard-boiled FBI agent (Kelsey Grammer, ridiculously out of place).

Anderson sets up some potentially intriguing mysteries—What's in the blue suitcase? Where did Ruthie come from? What's the deal with Cowboy?—and then solves none of them, offering up a nonsensical ending that's neither amusing nor profound. His direction is solid if uninspired, and the cast do what they can with the material, but you can't help and wonder how this movie got made in the first place.

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