‘South of Heaven’ review: A serious Jason Sudeikis can’t lasso up the dramatic chops to save contrived story [Grade: C]
While Jason Sudeikis was already an established actor in Hollywood, the mega-success of his Apple TV+ Emmy-winning comedy Ted Lasso has shot the SNL alum into the stratosphere. Because of this, Sudeikis certainly will have many more choices now as an actor, and the projects he chooses to do will get heightened interest. Which is why it’s so fascinating that the first Sudeikis film to hit during the Ted Lasso wave is South of Heaven, a low-budget indie movie that he shot before the first episode of Ted Lasso had ever been seen and is as far from Ted Lasso as you could imagine, and yet still won’t be enough to unchain Sudeikis from his popular TV alter ego.
Directed by Aharon Keshales and written by Keshales, Navot Papushado and Kai Mark, South of Heaven stars Sudeikis as Jimmy, a mild-mannered, sweet guy who just spent twelve years in prison for armed robbery. Jimmy’s only concern upon getting paroled is to reunite with his girlfriend Annie, played by Evangeline Lilly, who has lung cancer and has been given one year to live. Jimmy swears that he will give Annie the best year of her life, but Jimmy’s past, combined with unscrupulous characters and some tragic coincidences make that idyllic dream impossible as Jimmy is forced to defend himself and Annie from a local crime boss who has put a target on his back.
It’s impossible to not be reminded of Nobody from earlier this year, the film in which comic actor Bob Odenkirk goes against type as a family man who just happens to be a highly-trained assassin and is forced to reveal his true colors when his family is threatened. Part of the allure of Nobody was to watch Odenkirk, a low-key and unassuming guy, known for his deadpan comedy, turn into a heat-seeking, violent missile of death and destruction. In South of Heaven, while Jason Sudeikis doesn’t necessarily reach the same extremes as Odenkirk does in Nobody, he is definitely riding hard against type here, far from the goofy comic stylings we had grown used to from Saturday Night Live and We’re the Millers. And, for the most part, it works. Sudeikis is serviceable as a dramatic actor, endearing and able to draw the audience in to his emotional vulnerability. But it unfortunately is just not textured enough. As Jimmy, Sudeikis only finds two emotions: cloyingly sentimental or vaguely pissed off. He is a reactive actor, allowing the real color to come from who he’s playing against, as Sudeikis just doesn’t have much of a range. Worst of all, audiences will have a hard time not seeing many shades of Sudeikis’ now-famous character, Ted Lasso, in his portrayal of Jimmy. Jimmy’s accent, sweetness and generally kind demeanor are way too close to Sudeikis’ television portrayal of Lasso. It’s just too big a leap to ask anyone who hasn’t watched Ted Lasso (and who hasn’t) to see this character and not have it jump to mind.
It’s too bad, because South of Heaven is not a bad film. Keshales has crafted a nicely-paced if not exceedingly violent crime drama that holds your interest and is beautifully shot by Matt Mitchell. But there are just too many problem areas. Besides the nagging feeling that Sudeikis is miscast, it becomes eminently apparent that Lilly is as well. She is just not believable as the small-town girl who has been pining for her man for twelve years. Even though her character’s boyfriend has been in prison for twelve years and she is dying from cancer, there is no sign of any suffering or hardship in her performance. It also doesn’t help that Lilly and Sudeikis have zero chemistry and, when the film’s entire emotional core is reliant on the audience falling in love with this couple, that’s a true liability.
But it is the overall story that hurts South of Heaven the most. The audience must feel Jimmy’s predicament and be rooting for him against all the circumstances that pile on, but when those circumstances are this contrived and the screenplay this overly-written, nothing feels authentic. Even the great Mike Colter is recycling a character he played on television in The Good Wife, a nod to the overall lack of original, or believable, ideas contained in this script.
The film’s furious finale is farfetched, unearned and a little baffling, but even with all the shortcuts and lack of depth in character and plot, South of Heaven finds a way to be interesting, even unpredictable. While it may not win Jason Sudeikis any Oscars, it signals his desire to challenge perception, which is always admirable, if not particularly successful.
RLJE Films will release South of Heaven on October 8, 2021.