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.
Adding to the marquee value are supporting turns from Sharon Stone and Amanda Peet. Stone turns up as an overly-tanned old friend of Nat’s who used to serve as Flynn’s babysitter. Peet plays Flynn’s girlfriend. Their relationship is on the rocks, so mostly her performance consists of listening to Flynn’s rambling phone messages whenever he checks in with her. While their roles were likely easy paychecks for these actresses, the producers should be credited with loading the cast with recognizable names.
$5 a Day is presented on Blu-ray in 1080p High Definition with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Picture sharpness is generally acceptable, with fine details sometimes sacrificed due to an abundance of grain. I doubt any visual flaws are really the fault of Blu-ray transfer. The cinematography, whether intentional or a result of budget limitations, is grainy and occasionally underlit. It’s not a pretty looking movie, and the high definition transfer does an accurate job of representing that fact. Being a road movie shot on location in numerous states, the outdoor photography looks best with Nat’s pink car providing sharp contrast to the rusty southwestern scenery.
Audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and as with the visuals, the soundtrack is appropriately functional. The surrounds are almost never used, even in the noisier scenes. Being that the movie is not action-oriented, the best that can be said about the audio is that the dialogue remains clear and intelligible. $5 a Day is a talky, quiet movie and the no-frills soundtrack is entirely acceptable.
The special features shed no light on the making of the movie. The still gallery is a waste of disc space. The short interviews with cast members and director Nigel Cole are of a hyperbolic promotional nature, therefore providing no insight. This is a movie of small pleasures, driven by the appeal of its cast. Even without a technically stunning Blu-ray presentation or any special features worth mentioning, $5 a Day is an entertaining ride and packs a modest emotional punch.