In the character-driven lineage of such classics as Goodfellas, Big Lebowski, and True Romance; Walk to Vegas (written by Vincent Van Patten and Steve Alper; directed by Eric Balfour) features a brotherhood that operates on an informal black-market economy impervious to the rules of law, other than the innate sense of honor established through direct eye contact, firm handshakes, and camaraderie. It is a den of high-stakes Hollywood gamblers continuously engaging one another in ever-more outrageous ante-upping, dares and bets that culminate in our protagonist, Vincent VanPatten, attempting a walk from LA to Vegas in seven days in a suit. The characters of this instant classic — played by such greats as Eileen Davidson, Jennifer Tilly, Danny Pardo, Paul Walter Hauser, and James VanPatten, are straight out of Cervantes. The result: pure comic genius.
The film’s premise begins as a familiar one: handsome, middle-aged actor, Duke (played brilliantly by Vincent Van Patten), a onetime movie star, now finds his career unceremoniously lumbering to a halt — not unlike the way his rusted-out beater of a faded red hatchback settles heavily into the driveway after he returns home from yet another round of rejections. Now with no other recourse but to sell cleaning products in excruciating low-budget television commercials, Duke tries his hand at poker and finds that he has a true knack for the game. He and his stunner-of-a-wife, KC (the dynamic Eileen Davidson), quickly establish a weekly poker game in which everyone who is anyone soon wants to take part. The core group consists of Duke’s brother, Carl (Vincent’s real-life brother James Van Patten), Sander (Danny Pardo), Puppet Hank (Paul Walter Hauser), Angry Jim (Don Stark), and Wing (James Kyson): relatable characters, all.
One of the pure pleasures of the film is just how endearingly human these guys are — with all their foibles and flaws. They are our big brothers, our nephews, our first crushes, the neighborhood boys we ran with back in the day: evoking stickball games, paper routes, double-dog dares, and swimming holes. This comedic ensemble is a timeless one — one in which the viewer cannot wait to participate in vicariously. Thankfully, the cinematographer (Christopher Gallo) accommodates, busting cinematically through the door without even knocking, rolling the film Scorcese-style directly to the poker table where the laughs are dealt as expertly and as rapid-fire as the cards themselves. The film itself is in the style of a such cinema as Cary Grant’s Girl Friday, when it was taken as a given that an audience had the aptitude to keep up with the clever banter.
The success of Duke and KC’s poker game grows nearly as rapidly as the Quixotean cast of characters continue to grow on the viewer — with all their clumsy prank-playing antics. Word spreads through Hollywood and millionaire movie stars such as Chucky (Lucas Bryant), and Jennifer (Jennifer Tilly), soon join in the fun. This is where our antagonist comes in: hotshot director Sebastian (expertly interpreted by Ross McCall), and where Duke finally meets his match. By now, Duke is all but unbeatable: back on his feet with everything gliding along as swimmingly as his shiny red mustang slides into his driveway after yet another day of winnings. Sebastian, too, has never lost — until he meets Duke. And this is where all goes awry and the film begins to generate some heat — to the point to where we find three-piece-suit clad Duke staggering sunburnt through the California desert…
Walk to Vegas is on track to be an instant classic because the story is one that transcends centuries and geographies: it is the story of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Robin Hood and his thieves, the three Musketeers, Peter Pan and his lost boys. A more recent literary comparison would be Roberto Bolano’s masterpiece Savage Detectives: the story of an unlikely band of ex-pat Latin American poets “infrarealists” in Mexico City in the seventies — waxing philosophical, chasing girls, toking joints, dueling in the streets — together living life to its absolute brightest and fullest. The modus operandi in all of these literary works is that, in them, the individual is secondary to the gang, the brotherhood, the collective — in contrast to the current trend of our era in which the Self, with all of its empowerments, proclamations, “likes,” and in all its selfie-taking glory — trumps all.
In addition to its timeless appeal, there is an unfettered exuberance to Walk to Vegas that is refreshing on a number of levels peculiar to this moment in time. Our era is fast becoming one of humorless extremes: marked by razor-wire-topped-wall-expansion and tricked-out assault rifle advocates on one end of the spectrum, and by the topplers of statues, censors of books, and enthusiasts of trigger warnings on the other. Ours is an “America First,” “me-too,” “time’s up” era that has left Hollywood producers and undocumented laborers alike afraid to show their faces on the streets. More people in the US today are incarcerated, detained, deported, shot by police, gun-toters, and, apparently, gropers, than ever before, and the only remedy for this grim onslaught of mayhem is the one thing lacking in excess: humor. We yearn to crack jokes with abandon — to laugh at ourselves and poke fun at others without fear of immediate retribution of viral proportions. Surely, subconsciously, we have all grown weary of being surveilled, monitored, and observed continuously; of feeling obligated to weigh-in and remark on social media’s endless phenomena, all the time and in the least offensive manner; and of “clocking in” through the use of selfies to reassure the rest of the human race of our willingness to participate in the absurdities.
Judging from the state of things, there is one thing we must all share in common in this bizarre millisecond of human history: we are desperate for some laughs. Walk to Vegas lets us in on all the jokes. The film is deeply satisfying because it is void of any agenda — political or otherwise — aside from the pure and heartwarming intent of the Van Patten brothers (the stars, Vincent and James, who produced the film; along with their brother Nels who makes a hilarious cameo as a hobo), to pay homage to their late, great father, Broadway actor Dick Van Patten, best known for his role as the father in the television series “Eight Is Enough.” Walk to Vegas repaints the heady postcard-perfect California of Dick’s time: one of emerald green rolling golf courses and tennis courts, smoky red-velvet wallpapered bars with blackjack tables surrounded by pretty cocktail waitresses — but minus the violence, strife, and inequality. A grave misreading of Walk to Vegas would miss the fact that, although the majority of its actors are male, the women actors drive the whole narrative forward. Case in point: the brief entrance of Sandor’s sister, Papiana (the memorable Cristina Vidal), which represents a crucial juncture in the story, while both appearances by Jennifer Tilly are also important narrative turning points. And, most importantly, Davidson’s KC is as present in every choice and action as Duke is himself. These are some strong, powerful female characters. And this is one powerhouse of a brilliantly funny film.
Erin Currier is a contemporary American visual artist, world traveler, and painter that uses trash to create collages, portraits, and murals. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.