Review: ‘Accidental Texan,’ starring Thomas Haden Church, Rudy Pankow, Carrie-Anne Moss and Bruce Dern

May 22, 2024

by Carla Hay

Rudy Pankow and Thomas Haden Church in “Accidental Texan” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

“Accidental Texan”

Directed by Mark Lambert Bristol

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in the small town of Buffalo Gap, Texas, the comedy/drama film “Accidental Texan” (based on the novel “Chocolate Lizards”) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latin people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A recently fired Los Angeles-based actor is stuck in Buffalo Gap when his car breaks down during a road trip, and he’s recruited by a financially troubled oil driller to pretend to be a Harvard-educated land surveyor who says the rancher’s land is rich in oil. 

Culture Audience: “Accidental Texan” will appeal primarily to people are fans of the movie’s headliners and don’t mind watching substandard “fish out of water” stories that don’t look believable.

Bruce Dern in “Accidental Texan” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

“Accidental Texan” is an annoying “fish out of water” comedy/drama about a Los Angeles-based actor who is reluctantly recruited by a Texas oil driller to be part of an oil scheme. The dialogue and scenarios become increasingly ridiculous. It’s one of those movies that could have been better if the filmmakers cared about making the characters seem realistic instead of buffoonish caricatures.

Directed by Mark Lambert Bristol, “Accidental Texan” is based on Cole Thompson’s 1999 novel “Chocolate Lizards,” which was the original title of this movie. Julie B. Denny wrote the adapted screenplay for “Accidental Texan,” which takes place mostly in Texas, where the movie was filmed on location. The movie takes an over-used concept of a city dweller who has to temporarily adjust to life in a rural area and turns it into a one-note, unimaginative joke that runs out of steam early on in the story.

The beginning of “Accidental Texan” shows young actor Erwin Vandeveer (played by Rudy Pankow) on a road trip by himself from his home city of Los Angeles to New Orleans, where he is about to start filming a movie. Erwin is excited about this job, but his excitement turns into devastation when he is fired after a scene that he films goes horribly wrong. Instead of driving directly back to Los Angeles, Erwin takes a detour through a remote part of Texas, partially because he’s avoiding phone calls from his agent Vera (voiced by Elizabeth Maxwell) and his father. Erwin wants to go to an area where cell phone service isn’t guaranteed.

In an open field near the small town of Buffalo Gap, Erwin’s car won’t start, so he calls the nearest towing company, which is Moose’s Automative & Towing. Unfortunately for Erwin, it’s a Sunday, and towing company owner Moose (played by Coy Sevier) doesn’t operate his business on Sundays. The cost of repairing Erwin’s car will be about $600. Erwin only has $40 in cash and no credit card to use, and there’s no ATM machine or bank in sight.

While he is stranded, Erwin goes to a local diner in Buffalo Gap, where he meets a friendly waitress named Faye (played by Carrie-Anne Moss) and a surly oil drilling company owner named Merle Luskey (played by Thomas Haden Church), who both hear about Erwin’s predicament. Merle owns a small company called Luskey Drilling Inc. and is heavily in debt to a bank. Merle’s bank loan is due in 30 days. If he doesn’t pay by the deadline, the bank will take Merle’s assets, and he will be forced to go out of business.

Don Brock (played by Mark Nutter) is the Abilene, Texas-based banker who is anticipating the downfall of Merle’s business. Needless to say, Merle considers Don to be his bitter enemy. Merle has to find land to lease, in order to drill for oil, with the hope that it will lead to a lucrative oil strike that will get Merle out of debt.

It leads to Merle convincing a reluctant Erwin to pretend that Erwin is a Harvard-educated land surveyor who can confirm that the land that Merle’s company is drilling is rich in oil. Merle uses the Harvard name because Erwin studied business at Harvard but dropped out to become an actor. By contrast, Merle’s academic education did not go past eighth grade.

Erwin’s father, who is a professor at Harvard, has had mixed feelings about Erwin’s career choice. Erwin wants his father to be proud of him, which is why he’s afraid to tell his father that he got fired from a movie job that was supposed to be Erwin’s big break as an actor. Erwin’s father is never seen in the movie, but Erwin talks about his father to Merle. “Accidental Texan” has a brief and somewhat sappy reference to this father/son relationship.

The rest of “Accidental Texan” is about Merle’s business scheme and the race against time for Merle to get the oil strike that he needs. Predictably, Merle’s employees aren’t too fond of “interloper” Erwin, especially when it becomes obvious that Erwin doesn’t know anything about ranches and oil drilling. Merle’s employees are stereotypes of small-town, working-class people and have names like Big Gus (played by Selase Botchway) and Mule (played by David DeLao), who report to Merle’s second-in-command Shay Tatum (played by AnnaClare Hicks), a no-nonsense supervisor who clashes with Erwin. Bruce Dern has a small supporting role as a cantankerous local rancher named Scheermeyer, who gives some advice.

Everything about “Accidental Texan” is weak and formulaic. Pankow’s acting isn’t very good, while Church is playing just another version of the long list of sarcastic and difficult characters he has played in many of his on-screen roles. Moss’ Faye character is just a token sidekick who isn’t given much to do in the story. “Accidental Texan” is an example of how a movie can lazily take an engaging novel and water it down into mindless mush.

Roadside Attractions and Vertical released “Accidental Texan” in select U.S. cinemas on March 8, 2024.

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