For his next role, David Schwimmer needs to play a serial killer. Or maybe a hard-nosed Dirty Harry cop. Or a hearty lumberjack. Whatever he does, he can't play another hunched-over, watery-eyed sad-sack, because after a decade of playing Ross on Friends, he's already long since completely tapped the world's vast reserves of pity. The middling indie drama Duane Hopwood has been billed as a change of pace for Schwimmer, casting him in a downscale role similar to the cashier role his Friends-mate Jennifer Aniston took in The Good Girl. But don't be fooled: The character of a working-class Atlantic City alcoholic may seem worlds removed from a yuppie Manhattan paleontologist, but the most passive-aggressive schlub in television history hasn't gone away. He's just gone to seed a little.
Shot in a washed-out plainness that treats Atlantic City like off-season Panama City Beach in Ruby In Paradise, Duane Hopwood is suffused with hangdog dreariness, equivalent to a unsoled shoe treading rainwater. As the film opens, Schwimmer's wife Janeane Garofalo has divorced him over his drinking problem and threatens to take away visitation rights to his two daughters after a DWI incident. Meanwhile, Schwimmer's steady income as a pit boss at Caesar's Palace falls into jeopardy due to questionable decision-making, and his only companion is a slot-machine maintenance man (Judah Friedlander) with dreams of being a stand-up comedian. All of which is enough to lead a man to drink himself into oblivion. Much as Schwimmer clings to his kids as a lifeline, he has a talent for botching second chances, especially when he's on the sauce.
Writer-director Matt Mulhern handles the material with perhaps too much sensitivity, but his gentle touch does yield a few strong scenes, most notably an AA meeting led by a man who understands the coded language of other alcoholics. He also does well in making Garofalo a fully fleshed-out character who genuinely cares for her ex-husband, but cares more about her children's safety, even if it means severing him from their lives. But for a stripped-down character piece, Duane Hopwood plays much too broadly most of the time, and there doesn't seem to be a tough situation that Mulhern can't solve with a montage sequence, including a denouement that wraps things up with miraculous tidiness. And then there's Schwimmer, who reacts to scotch the same way he did to lattes on Friends—as an occasion to tilt his head down slightly, peek up with those big eyes, and silently plead for sympathy.