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Film review: Rubin and Ed

Crispin Glover is a strange fellow. His acting style and demeanor — even his line readings — are unquestionably unique among modern movie performances.

Glover is regularly cast in parts that are, to understate, bizarre: Andy Warhol, in "The Doors"; the over-the-top teen ringleader of a gang of misfits in "River's Edge"; the guy with cockroaches in his underwear in "Wild at Heart." (Glover's biggest commercial film was the original "Back to the Future," in which he played Michael J. Fox's father.)

But in his latest film, Trent Harris' low-budget, made-in-Utah "Rubin and Ed," Glover, as Rubin, would seem to have found the role that most fits him like a glove. And why not? He helped create it.

Rubin is a real misfit, a young man who apparently suffers from agoraphobia, the fear of open or public places (similar to Bill Murray's problem in "What About Bob?" and Elliott Gould's in "Inside Out"). He wears thick glasses, and his taste in clothes leans toward broad-striped bell-bottoms and high platform shoes. His hair is in a long pageboy cut.

He's content live out his life performing a ritual dance to somber music by Mahler while squeezing a rubber mouse. But one day, his mother, who runs the motel where he lives, orders Rubin to go out, find a friend and bring him home to dinner.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, we meet middle-aged Ed, played by Howard Hesseman, best known as Dr. Johnny Fever on TV's "WKRP in Cincinnati" and the first incarnation of "Head of the Class."

Ed is trying to get his life back together, including his estranged marriage to a gold-digging shrew (Karen Black), whom he keeps phoning, despite her nasty rejections. And he's put all of his life savings into a self-help series of lectures called "Power Through Positive Real Estate." Ed is ultra-conservative, has a very bad toupee and wears a wrinkled leisure suit.

And it just so happens that the day he's standing on a street corner trying to recruit people for the lecture series, Rubin approaches.

Ed solicits Rubin for that night's seminar. Rubin says he'll go if Ed will come to his home for dinner first.

Once there, Ed makes the mistake of getting into the refrigerator and finds a dead cat in the freezer. It seems Rubin has been keeping the feline on ice until he can decide where to bury it. Before long, Rubin has kidnapped Ed in his own car and driven to the middle of the desert, searching for the proper burial place, while the cat rapidly thaws in a cooler.

There are some funny ideas here from first-time writer-director Harris, a former Salt Laker who has spent the past decade kicking around Hollywood trying to make his first feature.

Harris can be very eccentric — the dream sequence, with Rubin's cat resurrected on water skis, is a comic highlight — and he comes up with some funny, if quirky moments in the context of his lightweight screenplay. But the film as a whole is somewhat disappointing. It often drags, lacking the narrative drive necessary to hold it all together. And it's weighted down by a less-than-satisfactory ending.

This is a very low-budget production that had its troubles (Peter Boyle was Ed until he had a stroke two weeks into shooting; he has since recovered), and sometimes the seams show through.

But Harris' wit successfully comes across, signaling a filmmaker to watch for in the future.

He also makes good use of the southern Utah landscape (it was filmed largely in Hanksville), and Glover and Hesseman both have some very funny moments.

"Rubin and Ed" is rated PG-13 for some mild profanity and vulgarity. And the dead cat, of course.