(director/writer: Michael Polish; screenwriter: Mark Polish; cinematographer: M. David Mullen; editor: Shawna Callahan; music: Stuart Matthewman; cast: Jon Gries (Sunny Holiday), Daryl Hannah (Bobbi), Garrett Morris (Lester Irving), Adam Baldwin (Mel James), Peggy Lipton (Janice), Mac Davis (Sammy Bones), Crystal Bernard (Cheryl), Anthony Edwards (Tracy), Patrick Bauchau (Santa Claus/ Voice of Sevon); Runtime: 92; Sony Pictures Classics; 2001)

“The Polish brothers are onto something about their view of small-towns in the western part of America…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Sunny Holiday (Jon Gries) leaves his wife Bobbi (Hannah) and young daughter to try and hit the jackpot as a karaoke singer. He goes on a fantasy road tour of Middle America for nine months to visit 43 cities with his black manager Lester (Morris), entering karaoke contests in dive bars. He dreams of becoming popular and launching his own singing career even though he lacks talent and is barely surviving in his chosen field. His ego also takes a pounding from his bitchy wife (seen through jump cuts of her relating to him before and after his road act).

It’s an on-the-road film and the comedy, tongue-in-cheek, is in the relationship between the dead serious Sunny and the ego stroking cheerleader Lester, who is offering his client homespun homilies for every troubling situation. For 15%, Lester takes care of the money and sets the songs with the management his urban cowboy protege will sing in the contests. Sunny’s signature song being George Jones’ “Grand Tour.”

On their tour, we see the following: They pray to the Lord in the bar rest rooms, where they hope to impress the judges and win the prize money. To save money they sleep in the pink Caddy Sunny borrowed from his wife without her permission. In one scene they give an interview to a reporter (Adam Baldwin), who it turns out is just a private eye who grilled them for info to use in his wife’s divorce case. Sunny pays a gas attendant with a jar of pennies totaling seven dollars, as he seems frustrated when the money is not accepted and throws the jar on the floor. He sends child support every month in the form of lottery tickets to his unimpressed wife. His encounters with lonely women starving for warmth and affection take on amusing turns, as he sells cleaning fluid to his bar pick-up Janice (Lipton) after his one-night stand with her. But the main part of the film is in the rosy outlook of the two character actors, even though they are going through hell there is a relationship to be cherished. The improv feel between the two as they spar, gives this film its unique look.

“Jackpot” is beautifully shot in glowing colors by M. David Mullen and directed with spirit and integrity by Michael Polish (“Twin Falls, Idaho”), who co-wrote it with his twin brother Mark. The film’s best features are the atmospheric visuals and its eye for details. But the story just drifts and fails to come together, as it lingers as one big improv routine. A movie with a similar karaoke theme was “Duets,” as I find it hard to separate the two films.

Jackpot is named for the town of Jackpot, NV, which is “just across the border” from Twin Falls. The Polish brothers are onto something about their view of small-towns in the western part of America, as both of their films have detected a certain foulness afoot in their whimsical look at American culture.