Fans of Michael Cuesta’s 2001 indie classic “L.I.E.,” which features Brian Cox as the only semi-sympathetic pedophile character in the history of popular media (at least post-Humbert Humbert) — it’s time to celebrate, kind of. And by celebrate I mean have a beer at 10 o’clock in the morning and wear the same clothes four days in a row. If you thought the portrait of downscale, dysfunctional Long Island suburbia in “L.I.E.” was depressing, wait till you see Ron Eldard as the eponymous hero of “Roadie,” playing a 40something guy who gets fired by Blue Öyster Cult (!) after 26 years of shlepping their gear (!!), and winds up back home in Queens doing way too much coke with a couple he knew a long time ago.
After “L.I.E.,” Cuesta made a gritty and compelling tween-angst saga called “Twelve and Holding” in the mid-2000s, which failed to generate any buzz, and since then he’s largely made a living directing TV episodes (most notably for “Six Feet Under” and “Dexter”). “Roadie,” which premiered on Saturday night to a packed and supportive crowd at the Tribeca Film Festival, is clearly a longtime labor of love, and I simultaneously want to endorse its ambition and nerve and report that it’s a very mixed bag. Actually, let’s call it a labor of love-hate, since it’s not entirely clear what’s been the worst thing about the misshapen life of Jimmy Testagross (Eldard’s character, aka “Jimmy Testicles”): Spending half a lifetime as a low-wage flunkey for an over-the-hill metal band, or growing up in the middle-class cultural backwater of Forest Hills, Queens. (Don’t be offended, don’t be offended, I know: Simon and Garfunkel, Donna Karan, Geraldine Ferraro, Candy Darling. Notice that they all got the hell out of there.)
Let me say this for Cuesta, for starters: He captures the outer-outer-boroughness of New York City like nobody else. Fifteen minutes into Jimmy’s return to his childhood home, where his addled mother (Lois Smith) views him with ancient and weary skepticism and the meddlesome couple next door are simultaneously decrepit and terrifying, and you’re like: Man, no wonder the Ramones — perhaps Forest Hills’ most famous rock ‘n’ roll escapees — sniffed so much glue. Let me add further that Jimmy Testicles’ extended soliloquy on the cultural importance of BÖC, the “thinking man’s metal band,” and the greatness of Buck Dharma’s guitar solo on “Dominance and Submission” almost made me a believer — and I pretty much hate metal, and never had any time for that band. (I mean, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” yeah. Of course.) Fans of Long Island’s rock tradition, which I also am not, will delight in a tribute to the quasi-legendary Good Rats, which Cuesta throws in just for the hell of it.
If the first awkward half-hour or so of “Roadie” made me want to claw my own skin off with claustrophobia and impatience, Cuesta shifts into an entirely different gear when Jimmy reconnects with a high-school nemesis, Randy (Bobby Cannavale, in his finest abrasive-asshole mode), who turns out to have married Nikki (Jill Hennessy, pitch-perfect in too-tight designer jeans and a bit too much eyeliner), Jimmy’s lost flame. Jimmy halfway convinces these two that he’s actually a music industry big shot, rather than a penniless middle-aged failure who makes them look like Brangelina in comparison, and somehow they end up in a motel room on Woodhaven Boulevard with a bunch of cocaine and tequila and Wild Turkey, with Jimmy air-drumming to BÖC and Randy lying on the bed half passed out and mumbling, “If you’re gonna fuck my wife, get on with it.”
It’s tough to say what the commercial prospects for this flawed but audacious picture might be — except, wait, no it’s not. The indie-film take on pop culture is supposed to be overwhelmingly positive, assuring us that it’s a redemptive and nurturing force, and “Roadie” is in some ways closer to the malicious spirit of the Chilean disco-horror flick “Tony Manero.” Movies about rock culture in its dotage are also supposed to be funny — but there’s too much pain and desperation in Eldard’s beefy, sideburned visage to be flat-out amusing. What did Jimmy Testicles get from 20-odd years on the road with the Cult, and can he build something approaching a new life in the aftermath? (He doesn’t know how to fold laundry, or make a pot of coffee.) “I don’t know” and “maybe” are not exactly comforting answers, but Cuesta is too honest, or too ruthless, to offer much more than that.