Named the Outstanding Narrative Feature at the 2017 Sacramento Film Festival, Michael Clayton’s debut, The Dunning Man, begins with a rather strange shot of an American flag flying in the foreground as a plane heads toward the Chrysler Building, disappears behind it, then emerges on the other side. It’s impossible not to think about 9/11, but fortunately the rest of the film is a quirky little black comedy about the travails of poor Connor Ryan (James Carpinello), a man who hightails it out of New York, leaving his job and his rich girlfriend, and heads to Atlantic City, where he owns several apartments he’s leasing to tenants who don’t exactly pay him on time, if at all. “I hate thinking that the best I got coming for me is being Mr. Roper,” he tells his well-connected Uncle Bishop (Tom Kemp). But Connor doesn’t like accepting help from anyone, even when he’s trapped in some questionable situations. He’s kind of a schmegegge, a luckless loser who can’t catch a break. He’s rented one of his lo-rise condos to Gillian (Karen Howell), who lives with a pair of killer Chechen “warriors in the spirit of the wolf,” Ferdinand (Scott Oakley) and Ramos (Matthew Rimmer), who are members of a group that likes to have sex as furries. Meanwhile, he develops a friendship with his other tenant, Alice (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), a single mother with a violent boyfriend. Living above Alice is party animal Stryker Jones (Nicoye Banks), a rapper with a hit album who is lying relatively low as he struggles to make his follow-up record. Connor just wants a normal life, but he can’t stay out of trouble, refusing to sacrifice his principles even when his very existence is at stake.
The Dunning Man is based on the title short story in a highly acclaimed 2014 collection by Kevin Fortuna, who cowrote the screenplay with Clayton and serves as producer. (“Dunning” refers to the payment of a debt as well as a dull, gray-brown color and a son.) The film, which occasionally goes too far over the top, challenging credulity, belongs to Carpinello, who has starred in such Broadway musicals as Saturday Night Fever, Xanadu, and Rock of Ages, such off-Broadway shows as Incident at Vichy, and such television series as The Good Wife and The Mob Doctor. He has an innate charm as Connor, goofy and likable even when he does really stupid things. Cinematographer Petr Cikhart, who shoots The Amazing Race, keeps his camera moving as Connor faces disaster after disaster. Throughout the film, Clayton includes archival footage of Atlantic City’s illustrious, and not so illustrious, past, evoking Connor’s dreams and failures. “I do enjoy my life,” he declares at one point, but it sure doesn’t look like it. The heavily Irish soundtrack is outstanding, featuring music by Spider Stacy and the Pogues, the Ryan Brothers, and Brent Butler. And where else can you hear discussion of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need? The Dunning Man is screening June 16 at 7:45 at Village East as part of the Soho International Film Festival and will be followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers and members of the cast. The eighth annual festival continues through June 22 with such other films as Sloan Copeland’s Life Hack, Paul Jarrett’s Crazy Famous, Jill Salvino’s Between the Shades, and Marcia Kimton’s Bardo Blues.