“I’m so broke, I can’t pay attention,” mumbles Joe Starling, the wisecracking, angst-addled painter who is the moony-eyed antihero of Keep the Change. As played by William Petersen (Passed Away), Starling has the artist’s version of writer’s block-he stares at a blank canvas and can think only of the emptiness of his own life.
Rather than drifting off in an existential snooze, however, Keep the Change quickly rouses itself to become a zippy little romantic comedy, easily the best and quirkiest TV movie cable’s TNT has yet presented. Part of Starling’s problem, he realizes at the start of the film, is that he’s whiling away his life in sunny California with a girlfriend (One Good Cop’s lustrous Rachel Ticotin) about whom he is permanently ambivalent. So he steals her car and heads back home, to Deadrock, Mont. He has a vague idea that if he straightens out his past, he’ll be able to get on with his future.
Keep the Change is based on the 1989 novel of the same name by Thomas McGuane. If you’ve ever read a McGuane book, you know that he’s a writer who has spent his career describing softheaded Montana hard cases like Joe Starling, guys whose relationships with women amount to love-‘em-and-leave-‘em, yet who draw women like flies because they’re so handsome, so tragic, so alluringly self-pitying. Everything a McGuane hero does is suffused with sexy suffering; a character in another McGuane novel, 1982’s Nobody’s Angel, summed up the type definitively: ”I see you,” he says to Nobody’s protagonist, ”as some character who joins the Foreign Legion hoping to be killed by Arabs because his dog has died.”
So it is with Keep the Change’s morose Starling. He flees to Montana for many reasons: to feel sorry for himself in the wide open spaces of the Starling family cattle spread; to brood over the troubled relationship he had with his late father; and to seek out his one true love, Ellen (Lolita Davidovich, of Blaze), now married to his former best friend (China Beach’s Jeff Kober).
Starling could easily have been an insufferable character, but Petersen, who also produced this movie, turns him into a yearning charmer, a screwup with noble intentions. With its affably aimless pace, amusingly low-key acting, and an insistence on the redemptive goofiness of love, Keep the Change is similar to other movie adaptations of McGuane’s work, feature films like 92 in the Shade and Rancho Deluxe. But this is the first McGuane-inspired movie to capture the dry wit of the novelist’s prose, to keep the shaggy-dog pace of the story from wandering into tedium. ”I saw one of your paintings in a mag- azine once,” says Ellen to Starling of the artist’s abstract works. ”It looked like custard next to a house.” The book has been adapted by John Miglis, who recently brought Scott Turow’s Burden of Proof to television with similar faithfulness.
For Keep the Change, Miglis has chosen to use Starling’s voice in a sardonic voice-over to narrate the story, so we hear Starling make murmuring pronouncements like, ”I am consumed with temporary insanity.” The joke is that the story here barely exists: Starling goes home, cozies up to Ellen, brawls with her husband, and helps to save his family land from a neighboring rich, greedy landowner. (He’s played by Jack Palance on what looks like his day off from City Slickers — same sort of character, same mean, sly attitude, same clothes.)
Keep the Change benefits greatly from the brisk pace and beautiful Montana scenery provided by director Andy Tennant, who is more used to overseeing studio-bound sitcoms like The Wonder Years and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. There’s also a funny performance by Buck Henry as Starling’s eccentric uncle. There are times when Keep the Change is silly and pretentious, but Petersen’s straightforward, unmannered performance keeps the film intriguing. It’s clear that, as producer and star, Petersen feels an intense affinity for McGuane’s loopy romanticism, and that commitment can keep even those of us who are skeptical of McGuane’s worldview smiling. B+