Smiling Fish

Sweet-natured and unassuming, “Smiling Fish & Goat on Fire” is ultimately self-serving. What begins as an engaging story about two brothers on the cusp of life changing decisions ends up being nothing more than another low-budget calling card to the movie industry.

smiling fishCo-written by and starring real life brothers Derick and Steven Martini, everything about “Smiling Fish & Goat on Fire,” including the off-beat title, feels less like a labor of love than an opportunity to prove how clever they can be. Every line, character and sitcom situation is designed to showcase them and not the story.

Which is a shame, because the cast is absolutely smashing. Even though they’re trapped under a thick layer of cute dialogue, the cast still shines. I liked both Derick and Steven, and hope to see more of them. They’re very likeable, and that’s their and the film’s greatest strength. Steven has sort of an Owen Wilson-thing going on that’s very appealing, while Derick has the presence and looks to be a major player.

Derick plays Chris Remi, who lives with his younger brother Tony in the house they grew up in. Located just off the Miracle Mile in Los Angeles, the house is full of memories from their childhood. Having lost their parents in a car accident, Chris and Tony, who are as different as night and day, turn to each other for support.

Chris, nicknamed Goat on Fire by his half-Native American grandmother, is the responsible one. As an accountant, he takes life too seriously to actually enjoy it. He can’t understand why his girlfriend always cries during sex, or why his co-worker treats him like a doormat.

Tony, nicknamed Smiling Fish, is the carefree brother. He goes through life and women with abandon, never willing to lay down roots long enough for them to grow. He’s a man-boy, a perpetual dreamer who wants to be an actor. A couple of bit parts give him hope, but his brother isn’t so sure.

“Smiling Fish & Goat on Fire” takes place during a pivotal week in both of their lives. Chris finds his safe and sane life upended when his girlfriend proves more aloof than a nun at an orgy, signaling that the end may be near. Or is she pregnant? Chris has little time to worry about it, finding himself playing chauffeur to a co-worker’s uncle. Then there’s the gorgeous Italian movie animal handler who opens his eyes and heart.

Tony is also navigating the currents of romance, desperately trying to hook up with the cute postal worker on his route. He’s also trying to land a role on a new television series, an effort that becomes more pleasurable when he learns that the postal worker’s daughter is also auditioning as his co-star. It’s a coincidence that could only happen in the movies, and it’s a credit to the actors that they make this moment work.

Christa Miller is warm and sincere as Kathy, the postal carrier from Wyoming who moved to Los Angeles to give her daughter a shot at stardom. When Tony meets her, Kathy is ready to pack up her bags and head back home. The audition for the television show is the make or break point. Smitten with Kathy, Tony grows up a little when he decides to chase her and not his dreams.

“Smiling Fish & Goat On Fire” has a lot to say, you just wish it had a stronger voice. There’s a lot of life lessons being taught, it’s just difficult to take most of them seriously. The writers and director respect the characters, just not enough to stop them from saying and doing cute, cloying things.

Jazz legend Bill Henderson is excellent as the uncle that Chris is assigned to tote about, bringing years of wisdom to his role. He plays a former Hollywood sound man clinging on to the early memories of Black Hollywood and his belated wife. That would be enough, yet the writers feel compelled to complicate matters by making him so eccentric that his wisdom becomes wistful. They take a simple moment and make it clever.

Thank goodness the cast is smarter than that. Director Kevin Jordan does a wonderful job of bringing out the best in them, getting natural, believable performances. The interaction between the brothers benefits from their real life relationship, which they comfortably bring to the screen.

Amy Hathaway, Heather Jae Marie and Rosemarie Addeo are all good as the various women in the brother’s lives, while Nicole Rae is sweet as Kathy’s daughter.

The most remarkable thing about “Smiling Fish & Goat On Fire” (other than its title) is that the film was shot on digital video for $40,000 and then transferred onto celluloid for the film festival circuit. Jordan’s smooth direction and Fred Lannone’s gifted cinematography make the effort look much more expensive.

“Smiling Fish & Goat On Fire” isn’t going to set the screen on fire (I wonder what that would smell like), but it will ignite the careers of the filmmakers. If that wasn’t the point, I wouldn’t have been so critical. There’s a sweet, unassuming story hiding here underneath the cloak of gifted filmmakers trying way too hard to impress.

OH BROTHERSomething fishy about this goat on fire


Derick Martini, Steven Martini, Christa Miller, Amy Hathaway, Bill Henderson, Rosemarie Addeo, Nicole Rae in a film directed by Kevin Jordan. Rated R. 90 Minutes.


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