BY ANDRES SOLAR
Superficially, 29 To Life looks like an indie cinema attempt at the typical Hollywood romantic comedy. Not so fast. Pleasantly, unexpectedly, it cuts much deeper than that.
Murphy Martin (compelling and rangy) plays a man of the titular age who, despite some moderate success as a chef, can’t seem to get his life together. He lived with his parents in the Los Angeles suburbs until they had enough and booted him out of their house and into a “mobile home”—his Jeep, which has also seen better days.
One of the things I like most about Alex Magaña’s debut feature is its freshness. 29 To Life is the type of movie up-and-coming producers should take interest in, and that’s because it’s a cinematic feast of notable young talent.
Lead actor Martin, steps up more often than not in a tricky role that’s more nuanced and risky than the average romantic comedy lead. In certain angles, he reminds me of a young John Doe, the veteran actor and L.A. punk rocker. So there’s definitely some grit behind Martin’s comedic grins.
Two or three of the characters miss the mark and the supporting actors playing them, too. Most of the supporting cast, though, plays well above average and some stand out strongly. Again, these folks are ripe for the picking. I can imagine all types of meaty roles for the savvy actor J.R. Ritcherson, who plays a store manager interviewing Barnaby for a job. Magaña also scored big landing Diana Solis for the role of Barnaby’s faithful high school buddy Madison, who knows how to steer him in the right directions. Solis, who appeared in the critically acclaimed CW series Jane The Virgin, is note-perfect in a key role that required a balance of charm, genuine affection, humor, sincerity, and vulnerability.
29 To Life features dramatic evocations, notes, and turns that piqued my curiosity more than once as to what might be next from the intriguing Angelino writer/director Magaña. He seems to possess that artistic power to see (feel, intuit, touch, smell, taste) things that most of us don’t.
Barnaby’s values pop up in his interactions with former schoolmates, prospective employers, and loved ones. He seems to suffer from some type of mild, unnamed personality disorder that keeps his motivation on an endless rollercoaster ride. The refreshing part is his easy honesty with people he genuinely cares about. That’s the beginning of this movie’s real saving grace—it’s good-hearted.
There’s a sprinkling of comedic genius on display here, and the script offers some quirky chuckle-lines and scenarios that reveal a burgeoning comedy-writing talent. Out of nowhere, for example, the hapless Barnaby decides it’s a good idea to start drinking. He’s not particularly good at even that, and his drunky missteps show Magaña’s maturity and insight, both of which would go a long way in larger quantities. It feels real that an almost-thirty-something living out of their car and collecting aluminum cans out of the garbage would also grab a liquor bottle for a nip at some point. A bar scene where Barnaby gets handed a delicious opportunity to turn the tables on a wannabe alpha-male satisfies with a couple of hearty laughs.
Ultimately, 29 To Life won me over. Somewhere in the second act, the chemistry between Murphy and Solis becomes irresistible, in large part because we’re then witnessing a tender bond between two characters who are unusual, but in polar-opposite ways. What it comes down to is that this film’s many flaws are small, and they don’t have to detract from its heart, which is huge.
3 of 5 stars
Available via Amazon.com