One of my favorite Hollywood traditions is when an actor takes a role clearly intended to be their own personal victory lap. In the past two years, we’ve seen actors like Sam Elliott (The Hero) and Burt Reynolds (The Last Movie Star) play versions of themselves onscreen; these roles often lean heavily on the roles that made these actors famous, simultaneously fitting within and deconstructing their own celebrity. And given that American Dresser stars Tom Berenger as a Vietnam Veteran who is asked to reexamine his life after the death of a loved one, I had hoped writer-director Carmine Cangialosi had something similar in mind. If that was ever the intention, however, the message got hopelessly lost somewhere along the way.
Even since the sudden death of his wife (played in flashback by Gina Gershon), John Moore (Berenger) has been cut adrift. His daughters beg him to curb his drinking problem; his best friend Charlie (Keith David), settling down after years of bachelorhood, tries to buoy him with memories of when the two men, fresh off a tour of duty in the Vietnam War, would travel the country on the back of their motorcycles. Then John discovers a letter that his wife kept hidden from him, a letter than inspires him to get back atop his motorcycle and make the journey from Long Island to Oregon. Looking for one last adventure before his health problems slow him down, Charlie agrees to join him, and before long, the two men have picked up another companion: Willie (Cangialosi), a mysterious drifter who can fix a bike in a pinch and seems content to travel alongside both men to the West Coast. Together, John, Charlie and Willie throw down in a bar fight, sleep under the open sky, and run afoul of the law in a small town, all while John’s drinking problem — and the unknown contents of the letter — weigh him down.
Given its lineup of recognizable faces — actors like Bruce Dern, Penelope Anne Miller, and Jeff Fahey also pop in as chance roadside encounters — American Dresser will draw audiences curious to see how some of their favorite icons are holding up in the twilight of their career. So it’s a bit of surprise that the biggest of many frustrations with American Dresser is its lack of believable history. For all the experience these performers bring to the screen, there is no sense of lives lived fully; Gershom and Berenger are more strangers than lovers in their few scenes together, and Cangialosi seems lost on how to turn John and Charlie’s pulpy backstory into an active relationship. To hear them tell, the two men survived the Vietnam War and years of PTSD by turning to each other for strength; what we see, though, are dirty jokes and grumpy profanities that do their middle-aged performers no favors whatsoever.
In fact, in his triple role as writer, director, and performer, Cangialosi seems more interested in his own character’s aloof coolness than the relationship between his film’s stars. We are led to believe that Willie is on the run from the law; in one scene, his hand goes instinctively for his waistband — and, we assume, a non-visible gun — when a female police officer so much as makes eye contact with him outside a bar. And yet, for American Dresser, this is all part of his charm, and Willie is granted multiple onscreen romances and his very own onscreen happily ever after. The latter of which, by the way, only occurs after Charlie succumbs to his illness, loses a leg, and gets stranded in a hospital room a continent away from his fiancee. And these two resolutions make considerably more sense in context than what happens to John, who finishes his journey leaving a good half-dozen unanswered questions.
Without the character bits to hold the whole thing together, American Dresser is little more than a series of mediocre vignettes interspersed with lots — and I do mean lots — of establishing shots. Closeups of John and Charlie followed by footage of the desert; closeups of Willie on his motorcycle followed by footage of the California coast. Cut out any footage that does not explicitly feature the film’s stars and you would likely shave a good ten minutes off American Dresser‘s runtime. It’s just too bad the people can’t be as interesting as the landscapes.