May 21, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Noam Tomaschoff
Culture Representation: Taking place in Fargo, North Dakota, and briefly in New York City, the comedy film “Tankhouse” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and one Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: After being blacklisted from the New York City theater scene, engaged actor couple Tucker Charlamagne and Sandrene St. Jean go to Fargo, North Dakota, to enter a performing arts contest where the winner will get a residency at the newly restored Fargo Theatre.
Culture Audience: “Tankhouse” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of satirical comedies about theater people, but the movie’s silly tone wears thin very quickly.
The performing arts parody “Tankhouse” isn’t nearly as funny as it thinks it is. The movie’s broadly written characters are hollow. The comedy too often misses the mark. Hint: Shouting witless dialogue doesn’t make it more amusing. And there’s a lot of shouting in this movie, as the cast members were apparently told that their characters have to yell for no good reason for about half of their screen time.
Directed by Noam Tomaschoff (who co-wrote “Tankhouse” with Chelsea Frei), “Tankhouse” is based on a short film of the same name written by Tomaschoff and Frei. Both “Tankhouse” movies take inspiration from the real-life New York City theater experiences of Tomaschoff and Frei, who both took an opportunity to go to a smaller city to stage a production. It’s essentially a similar story for the “Tankhouse” protagonist couple—Tucker Charlamagne (played by Stephen Friedrich) and Sandrene St. Jean (played by Tara Holt)—two down-on-their-luck actors who are engaged to be married and who stage a production in Fargo, North Dakota, after their careers falter in New York City.
In the “Tankhouse” feature film production notes, Frei says that Sandrene and Tucker are “absurd versions” of herself and Tomaschoff. In the case of Tucker, you can also add the description “extremely obnoxious.” That’s because Tucker (who talks the most in this movie) is a rude and pretentious twit who wants to be the “alpha male” of everything, but he ends up making a mess of things, more often than not. Because so much of the “Tankhouse” narrative is given to Tucker, the movie becomes as blustering and buffoonish as Tucker.
“Tankhouse” is also one of those movies that pulls a “bait and switch” on audiences, by giving well-known actors top billing, but those actors aren’t in the movie for very long. Fans of actor Christopher Lloyd (who’s best known for his roles in the “Back to the Future” movies and the sitcom “Taxi”) will be disappointed to find out that his total screen time in “Tankhouse” is less than 10 minutes, with all of his scenes happening in the first third of the movie. Notable character actor Richard Kind (best known for his roles in the TV comedy series “Mad About You” and “Spin City”) also shares top billing for “Tankhouse,” but his screen time is limited to less than 10 minutes too.
The “Tankhouse” movie poster also shows Kind, Holt, Friedrich and Lloyd all peeking out together from a stage curtain. It’s a misleading image, because it suggests that all four of them are equal co-stars in “Tankhouse.” The reality is that Lloyd and Kind barely have supporting roles in the movie, and their roles are basically just playing cranky know-it-alls, which is the type of character they’ve played many times already in movies and TV. Can you say “typecasting”?
“Tankhouse” has some whimsical-looking animation for some flashback scenes, including an early scene in the movie when narrator Tucker explains how he met and fell in love with Sandrene. (Her real last name is Rothstein. St. Jean is her stage surname.) Tucker says that shortly after getting his bachelor of fine arts degree at an unnamed university, he was directing an off-off-Broadway movement piece in New York City when Sandrene walked into the show.
Sandrene was doing research for a cop TV series called “Rookie Badge” that she was about to co-star in, but her role ended up being drastically reduced. Sandrene and Tucker began dating and have been a couple for an unspecified period of time. Tucker is the type of actor who looks down on TV work. He believes that an actor’s true merit and talent can be found doing work on stage. Tucker’s snobbery toward television is something to keep in mind during a plot development later in “Tankhouse.”
Now in their 30s, Sandrene and Tucker are engaged to be married. And they’re still struggling actors in New York City. However, a possible bright spot in their careers is that Tucker and Sandrene have been put in charge of the Artist Atelier Acting Studio, an avant-garde performing arts group founded by Buford Slezinger (played by Lloyd), who has been Tucker’s mentor. Buford stepped down as the leader of the Artist Atelier Acting Studio because his chronic battle with gout has resulted in him using a wheelchair.
It’s implied that Buford is an “old school” sexist, because one of the first things that he’s shown doing is barking out his “rules” for success to the small group of people in this theater troupe: “I have two notes: (1) A worthy actress must always carry a fan; (2) If you want to make it in this business, you’ve got to immediately lose 10 pounds.”
Buford likes to think that he’s a highly respected guru of the New York theater scene, but he doesn’t have a large following. The Artist Atelier Acting Studio has a very small number of actors: only seven, including Tucker and Sandrene. And this small theater group often gets an even smaller audience for performances. Even though Buford has stepped down from his leadership position for the Artist Atelier Acting Studio, Buford stays involved in the group by being a consultant/advisor.
Tucker likes to talk in flowery speech to make it sound like he’s a theater-trained actor who’s always the smartest actor in the room. However, his social skills are horrible, since Tucker frequently loses his temper and berates the people around him. Sandrene is usually spared Tucker’s wrath because she passively goes along with almost everything he wants to do.
Adding to Tucker’s pompous and ridiculous persona, he styles his hair and wears clothes like he’s a trying to be a combination of a Brooklyn hipster and “Pirates of the Caribbean” character Captain Jack Sparrow. For example, Tucker is the type of man who will wear flowing scarves with a black leather jacket. And his fashion choices for his theater troupe are questionable at best, since he makes the troupe members all wear unitards or onesies in their performances.
It’s at one of these performances that leads to the downfall of Tucker and Sandrene in the New York City theater scene. The Artist Atelier Acting Studio troupe is doing a rooftop performance in the Bronx, with only six people watching the show. The performance involves spontaneous interaction with the audience members.
One of the audience members is a wheelchair-using elderly woman (played by Bunny Levine), who ends up having a heart attack during the vigorous audience interaction part of the show. As a result of the heart attack, she dies during this performance. And there happens to be a theater critic in the audience named Jax Wynn (played by Rebecca Sohn), who (not surprisingly) gives the show a very negative review.
The woman who died during the show wasn’t just any audience member. Her name was Doris Feinstein. She was the “nana” (grandmother) of Artist Atelier Acting Studio member Asher (played by Carlos R. Chavez), and she was the Artist Atelier Acting Studio’s only financial backer. With their principal benefactor now deceased, the group has an emergency meeting with Buford observing.
Sandrene expresses her condolences to Asher about his grandmother’s death, but insensitive Tucker exclaims about Doris’ last moments: “Doris lived as she never lived before! Nana’s death: It’s the circle of life!” And this callous comment is not the only thing that causes alienation. The rest of the group members express their anger at Tucker and Sandrene for the couple making the group members do extreme performance tactics, such as having unsimulated sex and using real guns during a show.
Tucker and Sandrene are informed that the rest of the group has voted to oust Tucker and Sandrene as leaders of the Artist Atelier Acting Studio. Buford agrees that the majority of the group should decide this matter. And so, Tucker and Sandrene no longer have a theater group. When they try to get work elsewhere, they find out that they’ve been blacklisted because of the death that happened during that rooftop performance.
With their money running out and their rent due, Tucker and Sandrene are visited by Sandrene’s parents Deirdra (played by Joey Lauren Adams) and Bob (played by Andy Buckley), who still live in Sandrene’s hometown of Fargo. Tucker and Sandrene tell her parents that they have a great idea to start a theater troupe, but they need Deirdra and Bob to invest some money in it. Deirdra and Bob have been helping Sandrene financially, but this time, they’ve had enough of financially supporting her, so they say no to this pitch.
However, Deirdra tells Tucker and Sandrene that the Fargo Theatre has been recently refurbished and restored. And the city of Fargo is having a performing arts contest where the winner will get a residency at the Fargo Theatre. Theater snob Tucker is dead-set against the idea, because he thinks going to a place like Fargo is far beneath his talent. Sandrene is more open to the idea, especially since her parents offered their ranch house to Sandrene and Tucker to stay rent-free in Fargo, while Deirdra and Bob go on a safari in Tanzania.
Tucker asks Buford for his advice in this matter. To Tucker’s surprise and dismay, Buford suggests that Tucker and Sandrene go to Fargo for this opportunity. Buford tells Tucker that Tucker and Sandrene need to expand their actor experiences outside of New York City and that they can learn from these experiences. After some unsuccessful attempts to get enough cash to pay their rent, Tucker reluctantly changes his mind and goes to Fargo with Sandrene so that they can enter the contest.
Before going to Fargo, Sandrene was selling some of her clothes at a vintage store when she encountered a friend named Brian (played by “Tankhouse” director Tomaschoff), whom she hadn’t seen in a long time. In this scene, Sandrene and Brian catch up on what’s been going on in their lives, but Sandrene doesn’t tell him about her recent career problems. Brian tells Sandrene that he’s now a talent coordinator at a big agency called United Talent International.
Brian offers to help find actor work for Sandrene, who is thrilled. But the timing couldn’t be worse, because she will soon be going to Fargo, for who knows how long. Still, she’s open to opportunities where she can audition with video recordings. Sandrene doesn’t tell Tucker about it though, because she knows that this agency is most likely to find her a job in TV or in movies, and Tucker disapproves of any actor work that isn’t on stage.
Tucker also has a very jealous side to him. It comes out when Tucker and Sandrene go to Fargo, and they encounter Sandrene’s ex-boyfriend from high school. His name is Hank (played by Alex Esola), and he seems to still be in awe of Sandrene. At an Open Mic night at a local bar, Tucker becomes even more irritated when Hank invites Sandrene to sing with Hank during an acoustic guitar performance. She enthusiastically accepts the offer, and Tucker watches their duet while seething with annoyance.
Somehow, a bar fight ensues that lands Tucker and Sandrene in jail, where they meet an eccentric, wannabe actor named Uther (played by Devere Rogers), who always wears sunglasses because he claims to be legally blind. After getting out on bail, Tucker and Sandrene decide they’re going to form a theater group to enter the contest. Their biggest competition is a theater group named Red River Players, formed by Morten Mortensen (played by Kind), who used to be Sandrene’s drama teacher in high school.
Tucker and Sandrene then assemble a theater group that consists of Uther and five young bar patrons who saw Sandrene perform with Hank. These five other Fargo misfits are mild-mannered tech nerd Nina (played by Sarah Yarkin); Viking-obsessed Scandinavian immigrant Yorick (played by Joe Adler); militant feminist Leah (played by Nadia Alexander); and semi-closeted gay couple Jack (played by Austin Crute) and Brady (played by Luke Spencer Roberts), who have a “coming out” scene that is awkward at best. The group’s rehearsal space is a place called Tankhouse, a warehouse-styled building that Yorick has turned into a makeshift moonshine distillery. The expected hijinks ensue in a movie where the characters want to win a contest, but these shenanigans are a lot duller than they should be.
As the optimistic but often-flaky actress Sandrene, Holt gives the best performance out of all the “Tankhouse” cast members, because she comes closest to not letting the character become a caricature. Tucker is just a train wreck abomination for most of the movie, and Friedkin seems to be doing the best he can with portraying an insufferable jerk. Any transformations that Tucker might experience to improve his personality are very abrupt and crammed in as an afterthought to make him look redeemable. However, all of the characters in “Tankhouse” ultimately are very shallow and written as “types” instead of fully formed personalities.
“Tankhouse” isn’t a completely horrible movie. There are sporadic moments that should bring some laughs, such as a “musical theater” verbal battle (similar to a rap battle), with Sandrene and Tucker versus Morten in performing “The Pirates of Penzance” song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” Tucker the lunkhead also has some moments that should make viewers laugh, such as his habit of unwittingly mispronouncing words. His bungled linguistics are supposed to be ironic, considering that Tucker wants to have an image of being a highbrow actor with a strong command of the English language.
But these occasionally comical moments in “Tankhouse” are overshadowed by all the moronic posturing, dimwitted character scheming and the aforementioned unnecessary shouting of mediocre lines that pollute “Tankhouse.” The movie’s musical score—written by Craig McConnell and clearly inspired by 1980s sitcom music—alternates between sometimes sounding appropriate for the scenes, and other times just being downright aggravating. The middle section of the movie drags monotonously, even when “Tankhouse” attempts to have a high-energy, slapstick tone throughout the movie.
Physical comedy works best if the dialogue and characters are interesting too. Unfortunately, “Tankhouse” falls short when it comes to having dialogue and characters that are truly engaging. Watching “Tankhouse” is like being stuck in a room with people manically telling mostly bad jokes for about 90 minutes, and the people telling the jokes mistakenly think that they’re hilarious. The “Tankhouse” filmmakers also do not present the story in a consistent way, because “Tankhouse” tries and fails be both a lighthearted comedy and a dark farce. And some of the “gags” just don’t work and add nothing to the movie, such as a joke about Sandrene’s father Bob pressuring vegan Tucker to eat some bison beef jerky.
Supporting characters such as Fargo theater actress Mackenzie Billingham (played by Rachel Matthews) and Jack’s police captain mother Pauline Mikkelsen (played by Carolyn Michelle Smith) are very underwritten and are only used as plot devices to drop some surprises on the Tankhouse group. Although the ending of “Tankhouse” does not take a completely predictable route, it’s still too little, too late. “Tankhouse” might be trying to get the type of cult-audience status of director Christopher Guest’s classic 1996 community theater mockumentary “Waiting for Guffman,” but “Tankhouse” lacks the wit and the charm to gain a notable cult following.
Vertical Entertainment released “Tankhouse” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 13, 2022.