When perusing the vast amount of direct-to-video releases, often the only thing that catches the potential viewer's attention is the presence of a well known cast member. Movies that don't make it to theaters generally don't have any serious marketing muscle behind them. But with a star or two, even in a cameo appearance, the producers of these releases figure they've got an insurance plan guaranteeing at least a little interest. $5 a Day is one of those movies. Newly available on Blu-ray, this low key affair is worth a look.
Christopher Walken stars as Nat, an aging small-time con man hoping to reconnect with his estranged son Flynn (Alessandro Nivola). Borrowing a page from The Royal Tenenbaums' playbook, the catalyst for tightening the family ties is a terminal illness Nat supposedly has developed. Flynn knows his father too well to take anything, even as serious as a brain tumor, at face value. Even so, Nat manages to convince Flynn to drive him from New Jersey to New Mexico where he will supposedly receive experimental medical treatment.
The title $5 a Day refers to the amount of money Nat has managed to scrape by on. He's willing to work any angle to save a buck. He drives a garish Sweet 'N Low advertisement on wheels, because the sugar substitute company pays for the gas. The glove compartment is full of promotional cell phones, each stocked with 30 minutes of free airtime. Most of the movie's humor comes from Nat's various methods of saving money, whether legal or otherwise. At one point Nat infiltrates a corporate party at a motel (for a free meal, of course). When an employee, played by ex-Superman Dean Cain, sees right through Nat's scheme, Flynn slips into grifter mode in order to save his dad from a beating.
While there isn't an abundance of surprises along the way, this road movie coasts along on the quirky charms of its cast. Nivola is unassuming and subtle as Flynn, a man pushing 40 who has yet to find his niche in life. One of his father's schemes inadvertently sent him to prison for a spell, effectively ruining his career prospects. As Nat, the father with a guilty conscience, Walken keeps his eccentricities in check. His desire to make amends with his son comes across as warmly genuine. Nivola and Walken work well together, clearly communicating that, despite a lifetime of conflict, their father/son bond never evaporated.