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'Goodbye Solo' delivers unexpected twist

Goodbye Solo (NR)

Two stars out of four

Essentially traveling down the same release path as "Tyson," "Goodbye Solo" has toured the global festival circuit and has been lauded by prominent egghead critics who are tripping over themselves to sing its praises. Rarely have so many people been so afraid to declare that the emperor is wearing no clothes.

Taking his cue from "Sling Blade" and scores of its imitators, writer/director Ramin Bahrani has crafted a spare, brittle and largely uninvolving wisp of a movie that is heavy on Southern Gothic atmosphere and little else. After checking out the career paths of its two lead performers, it's also clear Bahrani was pressed to come up with many original character traits.

A native of Côte d'Ivoire (formerly the Ivory Coast), actor Souléymane Sy Savané plays Solo, a Senegalese cab driver living in Winston-Salem, N.C., studying to become a flight attendant. With his mahogany complexion and perpetual smile, Solo is the embodiment of the new American dream, seemingly incapable of saying, thinking or doing anything negative.

Solo's latest fare William (Red West) is the complete opposite. He's sullen, downbeat and prematurely weathered by years of self-inflicted abuse while working as one of Elvis Presley's "Memphis Mafia" bodyguards.

In the first scene, William instructs Solo to pick him up in 10 days, and for a fee of $1,000, drive him - one way - to Blowing Rock, a place where the snow falls up. There's only one reason someone would want a one-way trip to the top of a mountain, and in no time Solo switches into intervention mode and becomes a permanent, self-imposed fixture in William's life.

The pairing of the May-December characters results in sparks, but next to none of it is very interesting or adds much to the story. The lone exception is a young man who works as a box-office attendant at the local movie theater who offers William recommendations on new releases. The man is shown too often to be an incidental character and we're able to figure out his obvious connection to William long before Solo does.

Care to guess what the two leads did before becoming actors? Savané - then based in Paris - worked as a flight attendant and West was employed as a bodyguard for Presley. Some may insist that Bahrani's working the actors' real-life pasts into the plot lends the characters more authenticity and boosts the suspension of disbelief. However, this approach can cut both ways; in this case it saddles and restricts the performances rather than enhancing or deepening them.

In a token nod to Bahrani, he does deliver an unexpected twist toward the end, but it doesn't contain the level of gravitas or irony he was intending or we were expecting. It's just the final non-event in this non-dramatic drama. (Gigantic Pictures/Roadside Attractions)