In the loosely constructed Dealin’ with Idiots, writer-director Jeff Garlin applies the artistic urge to examine the secret lives of strangers rather simplistically to the coaches and parents of pee-wee baseball players with whom his character shares the bleachers. Garlin stars as Max Morris, a famous comedian and filmmaker of sorts (of course) who just wants to watch his son have fun, but is forced to endure the company of overbearing and bizarre parents during little league games. “What are their private lives like to make them act like that?” he wonders, triggering the idea to use them as the focus for his next tentative movie project. The film’s self-reflexivity ends there though; in failing to uncover humane truths, Garlin merely props up a crude collection of hotheaded, buffoonish caricatures.
In conducting his “research,” Max discovers that perhaps these people are of little interest, and that laid-back apathy pervades Garlin’s resigned direction as well. The ensemble is given the opportunity to steal scenes as easy as bases, but the performances appear to be more defined and constricted by a four-word character sketch rather than recognizable human behavior. There’s a petty print-and-copy store manager (Bob Odenkirk), an argumentative lesbian couple (Gina Gershon and Mindy Rickles), a multi-divorced oblivious codger (Fred Willard), an obnoxiously secretive interview decliner (Steve Agee), a sexy nanny (Hope Dworaczyk), an earnest, castrated husband (Richard Kind), and, most reprehensibly, his uptight wife who serves as “Team Mom” (Jami Gertz, playing into her broad character with extreme shrillness). Sure, adults, especially helicopter parents, are weird, but the film is reduced to a series of unfunny mockery laid out so Garlin can display his trademark deadpan reaction. Dealin’ with Idiots is posited as a satire, and yet it’s unclear what exactly is being satirized. Despite the Los Angeles setting, the film even fails as an amusingly critical observation on SoCal lifestyles as it doesn’t possess the sense of place that, say, Curb Your Enthusiasm does.
There’s an undercurrent of nostalgia in Dealin’ with Idiots that’s explicitly stated in the sepia-toned shifts when Garlin is visited by a young ghost of his father (Timothy Olyphant). Garlin attempts to articulate the anxieties of being a father in the modern world, but, despite his general bonhomie, his old-fashioned humility doesn’t translate among this parade of fools. Ultimately, the film amounts to little more than a smorgasbord of comedy pals wasting their talents riffing on the one-dimensional imbeciles they’re given. Even Garlin’s bemused observation of his specimens’ twisted logic (multiple characters believe their kids should be hit by, or dive into, a pitch to overcome their fears and get on base) are rendered feeble by absurd exaggeration. In the final moments, Garlin gives his character—the only sane person in the bunch, natch—a moment to explode on the ensemble in an attempt to instill humanity, but the catharsis is undermined by an embedded cynicism exhibited throughout his exploration of these sorry souls. It’s a lazy soft pitch of a film, and one that shows that increased organization and teamwork could’ve gone a long way.