Director: Hart Bochner
Speaking as someone who doesn’t even have power windows let alone a GPS directional system, I’ve graduated from the headache inducing cumbersome maps with size nine font and an overreliance on geometry to the friendlier, although sometimes erroneous MapQuest directions. And, while it’s always nerve-wracking to venture out on my own-- armed with a terrific mix CD or programmed iPod and a questionable cheat sheet from a computer website to get myself where I need to be-- I love taking in the scenery as I go. Not only am I constantly amazed by the homogeny of mini-malls, fast food places, and chain stores, but it’s always intriguing when I get out of the cityscape and drive through one of those under-populated desert ghost towns where you only see one main grocery store with a mostly vacant lot, a few scattered shops including the obligatory gas station and then one small community of homes amidst an unforgiving, desolate backdrop, where it’s quiet for miles and... when global warming is at its worst, it climbs to an extreme one hundred and thirty degrees. As I whip by in air-conditioned luxury, knowing it’s just one numeric direction on my MapQuest list, the writer in me wonders what life is like in one of those sleepy towns.
In Just Add Water, writer/director Hart Bochner’s unrelentingly dark yet sweet and sour flavored comedy, we have the opportunity to find out as we meet our unlikely sad sack hero Ray Tuckby (Nip/Tuck’s Dylan Walsh), who lives in the bleak town of Trona, California where the toxic waste poisoned soil caused the river to be diverted as most citizens including the law enforcement all jumped ship (or rather town), and a group of unruly young meth lab running punks including Justin Long and led by the particularly vile Dirk (Will Rothaar) purchased up all the property they could get their greasy hands on to run the show as greedy landlords, shutting off the electricity (and therefore air conditioning) when one of their residents blows their welfare checks and forgets to pay up, or threatening to harm Ray’s son if they’re not granted a new five dollar toll for driving down a public street.
Needless to say, life in Trona is miserable and for Ray it’s no exception with a shut-in wife who coupon clips and as Ray soon learns has a devastating secret all her own along with Eddie (Jonah Hill), an aimless son who keeps reminding his father that he’d like to visit a hooker for his belated graduation present, although really-- when all is said and done-- he realizes that he’d rather be a proper boyfriend to the lovely R’Ch’lle (Anika Noni Rose).
With more family drama piled on early in the film via a medical emergency that—in predictable dark comic fashion—ends with shocking laughter in a questionably tasteless confrontation, it seems that the only ray of light for Ray himself comes from his daily trips to the local market when he gets a precious few uninterrupted minutes with the girl he’s loved since grade school-- the sweet, adorable checkout woman Nora (Tracy Middendorf). However, as we all know—one of the greatest obstacles of finding love is timing—it’s not enough that you meet someone you’re compatible with, what’s more, you need to be fortunate enough that when the feeling goes from one-sided to mutual, you’re both free.
Lucky for Ray, he’s released from the old ball-and-chain but true to the film’s sardonic nature, his decoupling occurs in one of the most emasculating ways. Thus after Ray’s life is turned upside down and he finds himself single again, he tries to build up enough courage to give in to the crush he’s harbored for nearly two decades and Walsh’s scenes with Middendorf provide a much needed earnest and romantic relief to the otherwise dire film where the overwhelmingly unlikable characters and situations threaten to destroy any hope of finding humor in the outrageous situations that grow much more dismal as it continues.
Yet, thanks to a great, understated turn by Walsh whose quintessential good guy everyman we’re rooting for from the start and an amusing smaller role from Danny DeVito as the new Chevron station independent operator, this otherwise lackluster, below average comedy which initially made me recall the horrors of DeVito’s Drowning Mona and Death to Smoochy, becomes surprisingly watchable Saturday afternoon fare—especially one that would be much more enjoyable after days of endless rain has left one longing for the type of sun they can’t avoid and for which they would love to trade in order to Just Add Water in Bochner’s desolate, downbeat depiction of Trona, California.