The intense soulfulness that has made Milo Ventimiglia such a television favorite on This is Us is on ample display in Charles Moore's debut narrative feature. Its limited theatrical release sure to benefit from its leading man's current prominence, Madtown is an intriguing drama featuring well-drawn characters and incisive dialogue.
Ventimiglia plays the central role of Denny Briggs, first seen dressed in a sharp black suit while performing stand-up comedy in a nightclub. That he is not a conventional comedian becomes immediately apparent by his disturbing routine in which he talks of his troubled family life and announces that he will be confessing to a crime.
The story then flashes back to his interview for a job at a small family restaurant whose garrulous owner (John Billingsley) informs Denny that the place is renowned for their "world-famous sticky buns." Denny, who claims that he's worked in just about every chain restaurant around, gets the job, but his lack of table-waiting skills is revealed when he infuriates a group of customers with his well-intentioned but overly familiar attempt at friendliness. He does, however, form a strong bond with his co-workers, including Sarah (Rachel Melvin), a single mom with whom he begins a mutual flirtation.
It turns out that Denny has a dark past. He was bullied at school as a child, with his older sister Madison (Amanda Aday) frequently coming to his rescue. His parents were violently abusive, leading Madison to shoot them dead and go to prison for 20 years for the crime. Shortly after Denny starts his new life, she gets out on parole and makes it clear that she expects him to join her in relocating to Chicago.
Although billed as a thriller, Madtown is far more effective as a character study. Director/screenwriter Moore, also an actor, provides meaty characterizations that allow the talented ensemble to shine. Much as he does on his hit NBC drama series, Ventimiglia underplays skillfully, never allowing his character's internal angst to flashily rise to the surface. The supporting players are equally effective, with veteran character actor Billingsley shining as the diner owner, Melvin highly appealing as the love interest and Aday bringing a compelling intensity to the disturbed sister.
Not everything in the film works. The pacing is often sluggish, and such moments as when Sarah warbles an impromptu song at a piano feel forced. The poorly staged, melodramatic climax feels unconvincing, as does Denny's morose "comedy" routine, which produces unlikely gales of laughter from his audience.
But in its quieter moments Madtown proves touching, especially in its depiction of the warm interactions among the restaurant owners and employees who have formed an unlikely family. It's enough to make you wish the fictional diner was real so you could check out those world-famous sticky buns.
Production: Madtown Movie, Two Car Productions
Distributor: SP Distribution
Cast: Milo Ventimiglia, Rachel Melvin, Amanda Aday, John Billingley, Bonita Friedericy, Matt Lockwood, Joshua Elijah Reese
Director/screenwriter/editor: Charles Moore
Producers: Charles Moore, Liz DuChez, Stephen R. Campanella, J. Scott Scheel
Executive producer: J. Scott Scheel
Director of photography: John Turk
Production designer: Jennifer Klide
Composer: Angelo Panetta
Costume designer: Shawna-Nova Foley
Casting: Angela Boehm, Barbara J. McCarthy