Birth of a Salesman

The Alarmist
Adapted from Keith Reddin's play by Evan Dunsky. Directed by Dunsky. Starring David Arquette, Stanley Tucci, and Kate Capshaw. Opens Friday, Nov. 6, at the Embarcadero Center.

The hero of Evan Dunsky's The Alarmist is a dopey innocent named Tommy Hudler (Scream's David Arquette), whose only sin seems to be falling in with the wrong crowd. A rookie salesman with all the aggression of a baby chick, Tommy sells residential burglar alarms door to door in Los Angeles for a company called Grigoris Home Security Systems, and we are led to believe that his early success stems from fresh-faced honesty and boyish charm. So guileless is our Tommy that his dumb eyes widen when the boss tells him what he's really selling is not a box of electronics but “precious life.”

Sure, and babies rain down from heaven. It almost goes without saying that Tommy's employer and mentor, Heinrich Grigoris (Stanley Tucci), wears a shady little mustache, has his line of patter polished to a high gloss, and keeps his ulterior motives under deep cover. Shopping for ironies in the age of urban paranoia? How about a con man who foists “security systems” off on the very people he plans to burglarize? Why, it's downright … ambiguous.

As for Heinrich's mousy assistant Sally (Mary McCormack), of the pop-bottle glasses and the shy manner, she's very much in on the scam. Poor Tommy, of course, is not — at least not until Dr. Pangloss, as always, takes Candide into his confidence about the ways of the world.

Aside from some solemn preachments about the hazards of contemporary life, this nicely made independent feature can be a screamingly funny piece of business. Particularly when novice director Dunsky, working from an off-Broadway play by Keith Reddin, keeps things tilted toward the surreal. For instance: On the occasion of his very first house call, the stumbling, Gump-esque Tommy not only convinces his middle-aged prospect (Kate Capshaw's Gale) to install a brand-new AR-SS9, he winds up in the sack with her. Not only that, Tommy and Gale undertake a torrid affair that ends with a startling jolt of violence — a commingling of comedy and tragedy that Theater of the Absurd playwrights from Albee to Pinter and beyond have ably traded on for two generations.

First, however, Dunsky has us purely howling. No sooner does Gale's overgrown son Howard (Ryan Reynolds) discover the burglar-alarm salesman with his head up Mother's skirt than he regales the newcomer with the richly detailed story of his own sexual conquests. Not long after that Tommy transforms himself into the slick TV pitchman for Grigoris Security, then decides that the best thing for everyone is to take his 50-ish mistress for dinner at his cartoon-strip parents' house in the alien Mojave Desert — an encounter that quickly degenerates into a drunken burlesque on family ties.

Can a double homicide be far behind? Suspicion falls on the obvious suspect, Heinrich, alarm salesman and schemer. Tommy, inflamed now, is convinced his boss did the deed: Enter a beating and a kidnapping, a test of faith, and a moment of truth, all wrapped up in dark mirth. Then and only then does the William Morris Agency phone, offering Tommy a new career.

Playwright Reddin's irony-spiked comedy, albeit softened and humanized a bit by Dunsky for movie use, keeps us on our toes, watching and listening and laughing. Arquette makes for a likable dolt, and Tucci (fresh from his success with The Impostors) provides just the right wild hair of anarchy.

The movie loses some comic steam in its last 20 minutes, and its straight-faced subtext is sometimes too earnest for words: Does anyone on the planet need to be told again that, in a dog-eat-dog world, truth and trust are rare assets? But at its best The Alarmist suggests the dark farce of, say, Vincent Gallo's recent Buffalo '66, in which a paranoiac ex-con falls in love with his kidnapping victim, by way of the David Mamet-written Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). I also thought of David O. Russell's underappreciated Flirting With Disaster (1996), wherein the quest of an unfulfilled Manhattan yuppie to find his biological parents yields a pair of aging hippie lunatics.

Is the new age of black comedy upon us, then? That's hard to judge, but The Alarmist is another alarmingly good sign that it might be.

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