In “The Godfather: Part III,” we watch a frustrated Michael Corleone played by Al Pacino deliver the line “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” It’s a pivotal scene that indicates no matter what he does he’s trapped in a vicious cycle.
The same holds true in Clark Duke’s directorial debut “Arkansas,” which opens with a quote from Charles Portis, “A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.”
Duke and Liam Hemsworth play a couple of low-level drug runners for a kingpin named Frog, played by Vince Vaughn, who sports colorful shirts, bolo ties and an affinity for songs by The Gatlin Brothers.
The dark comedy features a great cast that also includes Michael Kenneth Williams from “The Wire,” Vivica A. Fox and John Malkovich, all playing drug dealers at different levels.
The story, written by Duke and Andrew Boonkrong, based on John Brandon’s novel, begins with Kyle (Liam Hemsworth), who explains in voiceover narration “I’m on the bottom rung of an organization run by a man named Frog.” Maybe not the bottom rung since he’s just relocated to Little Rock after being promoted. We’re then treated to a montage of Kyle’s transactions, while he continues “A lot of people don’t know about organized crime in the South, it’s not that organized.” He’s part of the Dixie Mafia but during the course of the film you’ll quickly realize that “mafia” is too strong of a word for these misfits.
Kyle’s first big job for Frog, transporting drugs across state lines, involves partnering up with Swin (Duke) whose wardrobe of Hawaiian shirts and track suit pants is complemented by a tiny mustache and a man bun; his catch line is “Everybody who meets me wants to be my friend.” To an extent, Swin is right, and Duke’s eccentric charm will undoubtedly make him the audience favorite. He is the comic relief to Hemsworth’s tough-guy persona who doesn’t have time for Swin’s bulls--t, and he lets him know it, “You remind me of a game show host.”
The film is divided into chapters, the first being “Boredom is Beautiful” as the boys head down to Corpus Christi only to be interrupted by park ranger Bright (a very funny John Malkovich) who is sent by Frog to intercede and pick up Kyle and Swin. The two go to work for Bright as junior park rangers as a cover for dealing drugs, which means mowing the grass, picking up the garbage and taking tickets at the park entrance.
Swin goes against one of the unwritten laws in the drug dealer code, fraternizing with the locals, when he meets Johnna (Eden Brolin) an employee at the local supermarket who thinks Swin is creepy but eventually falls for his charm. Fox is cast as “Her,” a nickname she uses in case the Feds are listening in to conversations, she’s Frog’s middleman who delivers his orders to Kyle and Swin.
Vince Vaughn as the organization’s kingpin comes with a backstory and flashback that show’s how he got involved running drugs. The wonderful Michael Kenneth Williams plays Frog’s mentor Almond, who takes him in after being recommended by a friend in Memphis where Frog got in over his head. In a few funny scenes, Almond and Frog are forced to watch movies like “The Toxic Avenger” with a middleman (Demi Castro) so it won’t look suspicious to the neighbors when the two swing by to pick up the stash.
“Arkansas” is a quirky dark comedy that holds its own in the mafia cinematic world. It’s not concerned with comparisons to more dramatic films, like “Goodfellas,” it exists to entertain and provide plenty of laughs. Any film that uses The Flaming Lips covering country classics like George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” gets a big thumbs up and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
We’re not in Italian mafia territory, we’re in the Deep South. And for those who don’t consider Arkansas to be part of the Deep South, well, as a someone raised by a stepfather with roots in the state, I’d say you’ve never been to Arkansas.