July 9, 2024

The Great Nick D’s Great Expectations

Poster - The Great Nick D (2024)
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The Great Nick D (2024)


Pros: Refreshingly original comedy-drama that respects its quirky characters and its audience; Lead Nathan Wilson creates an endearingly eccentric character without resorting to complete parody
Cons: Occasionally succumbs to cheap laughs; a couple of scenes fall flat

Hollywood can be very hard on also-rans. As one character in The Great Nick D puts it bluntly, “Once you fly off the radar, there’s no coming back.”

In Ansel Faraj’s and Nathan Wilson’s cinematic love letter to the eccentric denizens of Southern California, the titular character (Wilson) has been off the radar long enough to grow a sizeable paunch, abandon even the tiniest scrap of fashion sense, and take up roaming the beach front in the company of his equally eccentric (and seemingly mute) buddy Aldo (Douglas M. Eames).

Even when Nick was on the radar, it wasn’t the kind of attention most people would seek out. As an aspiring young actor desperate to get into the movies, Nick took the easy path to “stardom,” falling in with a cheesy porn impresario (Justin Dray) and metamorphosing from eager young Nicholas Hatton to Nick Dick, star of such porn classics as The Good, the Bad and the Boobies.

Screenshot - Douglas M. Eames and Nathan Wilson in The Great Nick D (2024)
It's Nick D-Day on the beaches of Venice, California.

In a flashback sequence, we find out that Nick’s plunge into porn had been precipitated when his beautiful roommate and fellow would-be actor Faye Davenport (Alexa Wisener) got The Call that she’d secured a plum part in Interview with the Vampire, and needed to get down to New Orleans post haste for location shooting. To add insult to injury, Nick had just purchased a ring and was getting ready to propose.

In his bitter disappointment, Nick chose the road to nowhere, with a short, exhilarating stop in the grimy alleyways of video porn along the way. In the meantime, Faye had climbed the ladder of success to the point of an academy award nomination and the limelight of national media attention.

But a chance encounter on the beach shakes Nick up and suggests that redemption might not be as out of reach as he thought.

When Nick and Aldo run across a couple of punks shaking down a trembling young man on the beach, Nick, almost as an afterthought, scares off the would-be thieves. The kid, looking like a Harry Potter clone inexpicably transported to sunny southern Cal, recognizes the great Nick Dick, and introduces himself as Ned Zimmerman (George Russing), son of Helen Zimmerman (Kathryn Leigh Scott), who runs a major talent agency. While Ned looks like he’s 15, we later learn he’s in his early ‘30s, and an uber film nerd to the point of apparently being familiar with the video porn era.

Screenshot - Nick's first encounter with Ned (Nathan Wilson and George Russing in The Great Nick D, 2024)
It's good to be recognized.

Ned is fed up with being a glorified gopher at his mom’s agency, and wants to resurrect Nick as a mainstream star to prove himself. Mom couldn’t disagree more, barely able to hide her revulsion at the idea, but ultimately relents, telling Ned to his face that when it fails, it will be a good lesson for him (she’s not exactly the most supportive or diplomatic of mothers).

What happens next is not the rapid succession of gross-out jokes and one-liners that you might expect of a comedy about a washed-up porn actor. Instead, we see Nick, his optimism rekindled and practically immune to anything that threatens to snuff it out, wandering into a number of gently humorous, bittersweet encounters.

At first, Nick struck me as an over-the-top parody of a SoCal street person, with his rasping voice and straight-from-the-dumpster outfit of cheap Venice Beach ballcap, animal print shirt and purple pants. To top it off, he gets around on a scooter that doesn’t even have the dignity of being electric.

But somehow Nathan Wilson makes you believe in a character who’s been down so long, he doesn’t have the sense to dress for success (to say the least) or think twice about introducing himself as “Nick Dick” to the people who hold the key to his future prospects.

There’s a great scene when Nick first shows up at Ned’s talent agency. The receptionist takes one look at Nick and curtly tells him that “the free clinic is across the street.” As the building security guard steps in to give Nick the bum’s rush, the receptionist, a look of surprised disgust on her face, confirms that Nick indeed has an appointment. Nick, grinning broadly, asks the guard to look after his scooter as he heads off to the elevators.

Screenshot - Nick D (Nathan Wilson) makes friends at the talent agency in The Great Nick D (2024)
Not everyone at the talent agency is a fan of the Great Nick D.

The film takes that initial scene and runs with it by having the various young, professional women that Nick encounters -- the receptionist, an assistant director, and a casting assistant -- respond to him as if he were dog excrement that they’d just wiped off their shoes. But Nick also has his fans: Phyllis (O-Lan Jones), an old hand at the talent agency, is a Nick D fangirl, and the fraternity-bro director of a TV commercial gig that Ned gets for Nick similarly gushes over him. It’s a running joke that highlights the post Me-Too era generation gap.

As Nick scoots his way around the greater LA area in search of redemption, we get quite a tour of the city’s “coulda been a contender” underbelly. At one point, Nick drags Aldo along to his old producer’s house in search of porn footage from which to make an acting demo reel (not exactly a stellar plan, but then Nick hasn’t had to sell himself for a long time).

When the producer goes off to look for Nick’s tapes, Aldo, curious about a stuffed rattlesnake sitting on an end table, reaches out tentatively to touch it. Nick quickly cuts him off: “Don’t… touch … it… you don’t know where it’s been.” That goes doubly for Aunt Judy (Lisa Blake Richards), an ageing bargain basement diva who shows up out of nowhere and wants someone to rub lotion on her back before she goes out to sunbathe.

Screenshot - Nick (Nathan Wilson) visits his old producer (Justin Dray) in The Great Nick D (2024)
Nick reminisces with his former producer about the good ol' bad ol' days

While that scene flirts with cheap laughs, a later sequence involving Nick’s dad seems to be going in a similar direction, but ends up in decidedly different territory. Nick, energized with his new prospects and unable to forget about the girl who got away, visits his dad in search of the ring he was going to give Faye.

The set-up is ripe. Like his son, Jim Hatton (David Selby) hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, but he does have a cozy place in the canyon and is married to an ex-exotic dancer (Kelly Kitko) who is younger than Nick, and happens to be celebrating her birthday in a highly inebriated state when Nick shows up.

Instead of going overboard with obvious jokes, co-writers Faraj and Wilson play it very straight with their characters. Sure they’re eccentric -- from the elder Hatton’s get-up, you can see where Nick got his fashion sense. But this family is more than a collection of sit-com-ish cliches.

Jim reminds his son that in his hurt and anger after the breakup, Nick had buried the engagment ring in the old man’s back yard. After digging around all night and turning Jim’s yard into a moonscape, Nick triumphantly unearths the ring, and father and son quietly celebrate as Starla sleeps off her big day in a lawn chair.

The scene is appropriately low-key, and veteran David Selby gives a great, moving performance as a dad who still believes in his son and has high hopes for him; “You’re a Hatton, don’t ever forget that,” he tells Nick.

Screenshot - David Selby and Nathan Wilson in The Great Nick D (2024)
Nick is a chip off the old block, fashion-wise.

Of course, not everything in Nick’s journey is kumbaya. Ned calls in a favor and books Nick on an entertainment podcast run by Bucky Shultz (Ben Solenberger), the entitled son of an influential Hollywood producer (Nick’s response: “What’s a podcast?).

The face-off between Bucky and Nick (over the merits of Robert Redford of all things) has a lot of comic potential, but somehow falls flat (Robert Redford, really?), although it does take shots at Hollywood’s rampant nepotism and the tendency of social media to divide nerds over the most trivial pop culture minutiae.

Similarly, Nick’s demo reel scraped together from clips of his porn movies should be funnier, but the clips themselves (and the “movies” that they’re pulled from) are so over-the-top that they induce eye-rolls instead of chuckles (although, the porn parody of the Phantom the Opera is clever in a very crude way).

The Great Nick D utilizes one of the oldest plot tropes in the book, turning “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” into “boy meets girl, boy loses girl and self-respect, boy has chance to get his self-respect back and maybe even the girl.”

There’s the requisite set-back when Ned is forced to let Nick go after the podcast debacle, but Nick’s new-found friends aren’t ready to give up, and Ned and Phyllis go behind Helen’s back to somehow get Nick an audition with a major HBO production.

Nick, ever the fashion disaster, shows up to his potential big break wearing a pale blue tux suitable for an ‘80s high school prom. To add to the tension, the casting director thinks he’s seen Nick before, but can’t quite remember where… Without going into too much spoiler detail, Nathan Wilson/Nick D performs an eye-opening audition.

Screenshot - Nick (Nathan Wilson) auditions for a bigtime HBO production in The Great Nick D (2024)
Rockin' retro tux: check. Hair parted neatly down the middle: check. Acting A-game: ?

The film mostly avoids the twin pitfalls of cheap laughs and cloying sentimentality in taking its main character on his redemptive journey, and it has a great eye for the common humanity behind even the most eccentric characters.

The cast is very much up to the task of portraying that authentic eccentricity. A lot of familiar faces from previous Faraj directed productions are here, including Dark Shadows alums Kathryn Leigh Scott, David Selby, Lisa Blake Richards and Lara Parker. (Sadly, this was Lara Parker’s last role. She filmed her part some three months before passing away in October, 2023 at the age of 84. She appears in a short but very moving scene as Nick’s old acting coach, with whom he has a heart-to-heart talk.)

Another Faraj regular, Douglas M. Eames, has hardly a word to say as Nick’s buddy Aldo, but his looks of resolute loyalty and empathy under his signature lumberjack hat makes him a memorable character.

Alexa Wisener as Faye appears in intermittent flashbacks until the very end, when Nick finally catches up with her in “real” time. Even with her relatively limited screen time, it’s easy to see how Nick could become obsessed. Faye is a character that, in another filmmaker’s hands, might easily have been twisted into an egotistical, self-involved caricature, but surprise, behind the success is a real, sincere person. And Nick’s redemption vis-à-vis Faye is very honest and un-Hollywoodish.

Screenshot - Alexa Wisener and Nathan Wilson in The Great Nick D (2024)
Good times right before Faye gets The Call.

The Great Nick D is something of a departure for Hollinsworth Productions and the creative team of Faraj, Wilson and Kitko. In recent years they’ve specialized in dark fantasy and horror -- see my reviews of Loon Lake (2019) and Todd Tarantula (2023).

Nick D’s development journey has been a long one, starting with Nathan Wilson’s pitch to Faraj in 2012, and flirting with the short film and web series formats before finally making it as a feature film. Wilson and Faraj ended up co-writing and co-directing.

It’s harder than ever for a low-budget, independent film to get even a moment’s attention in today’s firehose stream of media content. With its originality and self-deprecating humor, The Great Nick D is a refreshing change from the endless cheap franchise rip-offs and exploitation flicks (Amityville Bigfoot anyone?) that shout at you like carnival barkers from streamer catalogs.

Where to find it: DVD/Blu-ray

4 comments:

  1. Goodness, reading this article was a bit of a memory lane trip for me --I remember (giving away my age here...) Lara Parker as Angelique and David Selby in the original Dark Shadows! Sorry to hear that Parker died last year, but she was a beautiful woman (who played a vampire!) in the original DS. I haven't see this film, but that bit about an aging, dissolute, ex-porn actor STILL having a fan base in the online/digital/internet era...why does that seem SO Southern Cal/21st century?

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    1. Since I gave away my age long ago, I have no qualms in saying that I was a huge Dark Shadows fan, to the point of collecting the novelizations. And of course I had a big crush on Lara Parker as Angelique. It's great that she got back into acting after a long lay off.
      As for Nick's fan base, it's interesting how social media can generate nostalgia for just about anything, as well as amplify fads and trends that last all of 2 minutes.

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  2. This movie wasn't on my radar before, but thanks to your excellent review, I need to look it up. It's too bad independent films such as this one don't get the exposure they deserve, but word-of-mouth goes a long way.

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    1. Thanks Barry! The film is funny and original, and hopefully it will appear on a streaming service in the near future, where word of mouth will have more of an impact.

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