Jody Hill’s comedies of testosterone-fueled burnout are better suited to TV. Still, the co-creator of HBO’s Vice Principals and Eastbound & Down attempts an unassuming return to film (okay, Netflix) with The Legacy Of A Whitetail Deer Hunter, his first feature since the misanthropic Observe And Report. Familiar insecurities and impotent frustrations boil under its outdoorsy story of a divorced buck-hunting guru trying to reconnect with his phone-addicted 12-year-old son, but the shock value has been turned way down; out of all of the character studies of egotistical upper-Southern losers and micro-celebrities to come out of Hill’s long-running collaboration with actor and writer Danny McBride, this is easily the most sentimental. The characters are stubborn as ever, but in lieu of the characteristic spectacular downfall, The Legacy Of A Whitetail Deer Hunter offers only the pokiest and most rote of plots.
Sporting camo and a weathered ball cap that bears his character’s personal logo (it’s symbolism), Josh Brolin stars as Buck K. Ferguson, the God-fearing host of a long-running series of DVDs devoted to the apparently inexhaustible subject of shooting white-tailed deer, based on the mustachioed Roger Raglin. (The Legacy Of A Whitetail Deer Hunter takes its title from one of Raglin’s videos; others include A North American Whitetail Deer Odyssey, Shoot The One You Want, Close Enough To Kiss!, In Presence Of Gods, The Grand Slam Of Deer (One More Time), and I Had A Pretty Good Day.) The parody is as specific as an in-joke. But a viewer doesn’t need to get it to get Buck, an affectionate caricature of corn-pone monomania. He lives and breathes white-tailed deer and considers it a patriotic duty to eat processed American cheese. The Legacy Of A Whitetail Deer Hunter seems to admire something about his single-minded values, even as it pokes fun at them—or at least its direction admires Brolin’s committed performance.
Yet things aren’t what they used to be. Buck’s DVDs sales are down, he’s gone through a divorce (which he blames partly on the DVD sales), and his surly son, Jaden (Montana Jordan), is being held back a grade. Even worse (at least for this male ego), Jaden likes his mom’s new guy, Greg (Scoot McNairy), who’s given the boy a fancy-looking AR-15-style rifle that Buck dismisses as being only fit for school shootings. Buck’s plan, which is about as subtle as a gunshot, is to take the kid on a hunting trip, where Jaden will bag his first white-tailed deer and their rekindled bond will be captured for a heart-warming new DVD by his loyal videographer, Don (McBride).
Buck, Jaden, and Don are the only characters on screen for the majority of the film, which follows them over a weekend in the North Carolina mountains as they pursue the “non-typical”—that is, a white-tailed deer with abnormal antlers—that Buck believes will be his son’s first kill. Hill and McBride, who co-wrote the script with Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals writer John Carcieri, get cringing laughs out of Don’s unofficial, self-appointed role as Jaden’s raunchy “cool uncle.” But for the most part, The Legacy Of A Whitetail Deer Hunter moves lazily from one annoyance to another; the use of cheesy clips from Buck’s finished video seems less like ironic narration than an attempt to patch the movie together. A philosophizing cheeseball like Buck might opine that downtime is a part of hunting that’s as old as time itself. But eventually, one begins to identify with the smart-assed Jaden, waiting for something to happen.