Welcome to Hipster Central. Writer-director Dennis Hauck outfits his first feature, Too Late, with so many gimmicks and narrative tropes that it takes almost half the 107-minute running time for the film to simmer down and get over itself. Split screen. Routine deadpan private-eye framework. Silly porno-style dialogue that makes the actors look bad. Recycled riffs from old movies. Loosey-goosey rhythm — a definite time-waster. Retro-crazy Techniscope visual format shot on 35mm film, complete with 1970s-era badly mixed music track. Run-on scenes that beg for editing. Worst of all, Hauck shuffles the scenes anti-chronologically, so continuity is out the window. It’s a John Cassavetes scenario directed by Doris Wishman.
But then, just as we’re ready to go out in the lobby and study the tile work, John Hawkes asserts himself in the role of a private investigator called Sampson. Sampson busies himself with a pair of cutthroat drug dealers (Rider Strong and Dash Mihok), a screw-loose drifter named Fontaine (Brett Jacobson), and assorted other characters drawn to illustrate the idea that Los Angeles is populated with treacherous nosebleeds.
As we grope in the dark for a through-line, Robert Forster and Jeff Fahey pop up as nasty old farts with cocktails on a rooftop deck, and Sampson engages in meandering badinage with the resident pantsless bimbo, Janet (Vail Bloom). There’s also a bit of business about a long-lost daughter, featuring veteran actress Joanna Cassidy. Sampson tames them all. In a worrisome reprise of Inherent Vice, he’s imperturbable and stoic, a soft-boiled dick who can take a joke — he has to, with this screenplay. What awful lines. But it’s all so random and cheeky that it’s a type of perverse fun.
Things improve in the second half as Sampson runs into strip-club artistes Dorothy (Crystal Reed) and Jill (Dichen Lachman). Lachman’s Jill wakes up the story with genuine sex appeal. If Hawkes’ face is meant for low-rent melodrama, the half-Tibetan, half-Australian Lachman, with her prominent nose, comes across simultaneously statuesque and untrustworthy, i.e., the perfect LA woman. Her scene at the drive-in, running the projector, swabbing out the toilets, and rearranging the loose ends of the plot with Sampson, gives Too Late a life raft to cling onto. This movie inhales the basic nastiness of Los Angeles riff-raff. In exchange for that whiff of distilled menace, we’re willing to put up with Hauck’s horseshit. It’s a pretty fair trade.