‘Sherman’s Way’: Charming road trip

March 6, 2009

 

 

Comedies – at least the ones that actually contain consistently funny moments – are in dangerously scarce supply.

 

So it’s nice to stumble upon “Sherman’s Way,” a surprising little low-budget comedy that has heart, smarts and charm.

 

Directed by Craig Saavedra from a script by Tom Nance, “Sherman’s Way” is part road movie, part odd-couple comedy. It is filled with familiar tropes yet regularly finds ways to subvert expectations and discover laughs in unlikely places.

 

Michael Shulman plays Sherman Black, an uptight law student at Yale whose mother (Donna Murphy, playing with delightful hauteur) has mapped out his future. He’ll spend his summer doing an internship for a top-drawer New York law firm before plotting his career as a litigator. This, in spite of the fact that he’d rather follow his girlfriend (Lacey Chabert) to California and spend the summer with her while doing his internship with a less obviously prestigious firm.

 

His girlfriend is unhappy and leaves him behind, bemoaning his lack of spontaneity. So Sherman decides to do something wild and flies cross-country to surprise her. Which he does – in the arms of a new boyfriend.

 

To prove she’s wrong about his lack of a wild streak, he stomps out to the nearby highway, sticks out his thumb – and hops into the first car that stops: a vintage MG Roadster driven by his new guru in the art of enjoying life.

 

That mentor is Palmer Van Dyke (James Le Gros), a one-time Olympic skier known as Palmer the Bomber for his daredevil downhill style. In short order, he and Sherman form an unlikely alliance, mostly because Sherman, a child of privilege, wants to prove Palmer wrong in his assertions that Sherman is spoiled and has no heart for adversity.

 

Sherman, who quickly loses his wallet, decides to hang with Palmer at the rural outpost of a buddy, D.J. (Enrico Colantoni), where Palmer plans to refurbish the car before driving it to L.A. to his son. At several points, Sherman makes the decision to leave – but never quite gets anywhere, opting instead to hang with his new friends (and pursue a young cutie in the nearby small town).

 

The road part of the film is minimal; rather, this is a student/mentor odd-couple comedy, about a guy who’s totally uptight learning to loosen up from a guy for whom “hang loose” would be a move toward structure. It’s that chemistry between Sherman and Palmer – and between Shulman and Le Gros – that gives “Sherman’s Way” its fizz.

 

Shulman has puppyish good looks and a talent for both slapstick and exasperation. He ably conveys this character’s remoteness from the real world, handling self-deprecating, sardonic asides with skill. But Le Gros is like a master of comic ju-jitsu, turning Sherman’s one-liners back on him, sliding under them or simply topping them. Le Gros has that whole shaggy, force-of-nature thing ingrained in his DNA, it seems: He’s casual, fluid and oblivious to the effect he’s having on Sherman.

 

Given how dreadful the movies are this time of year, critics have a tendency to grasp at straws, to grade on a curve as it were. “Sherman’s Way” may not be a classic, but it doesn’t need pity; it needs support, as a bright little comedy without pretension that deserves an audience for its easy-going, feel-good charms.

 

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