If you want to get me to watch a movie, just make it a neo-noir detective story set in Buffalo, New York. That was my initial take on the core elements of low-budget indie film The American Side (2016), and it delivers on them, but it also throws in some real surprises, like a world-altering retro-skiffy MacGuffin and an unexpected secret history feel, all surrounding famous inventor Nikola Tesla. What an odd concotion!
Scruffy gumshoe Charlie Paczynski (Greg Stuhr) is a PI working the back alleys of Buffalo. His unscrupulous collaboration with a stripper, who helps him set up marks in adultery schemes, backfires when his latest victim, Tom Soberin (Harris Yulin), dies in what may or may not be a suicide. Soberin’s death entwines Paczynski with Nicole Meeker (Alicja Bachleda), a young scientist connected to Soberin—and sitting on dangerous secrets. Soon, Paczynski’s twisted up in intrigues involving corrupt businessmen, the Serbian mafia, and shady government agents, among other things. At the heart of it all lies a schematic that could change the world.
The American Side makes an iffy first impression, with its low-rent soundtrack, budget-conscious look, and a hero that’s hard to love. But the Buffalo location work carried me past these flaws, and the film improves as Paczynski’s bull-headed pursuit of the truth leads him deeper and deeper into hot water. Is the script structurally coherent? Not really. But the scenes are peppered with catchy noir crime lingo, all classed up by a cast that includes Camilla Belle (the requisite femme fatale), Matthew Broderick, Robert Forster, Janeane Garofalo, and, remarkably, Robert Vaughn in a spirited cameo. Meanwhile, Stuhr (who cowrote the script with director Jenna Ricker) eventually grows on you, his stubborn, low-brow detective conjuring an incongruous seventies vibe. His throwback personality isn’t the only nod to the past, as historical references—involving Tesla, science in general, and the city of Buffalo—are scattered throughout the script.
The result is surprisingly fun, with a unique pulp genre flavor in a story that looks quirkily backwards at yesterday’s futurism. I suspect the western New York easter eggs were part of the attraction for me—everything from scenes set at Niagara Falls to the protagonist quoting the catch phrases of Sabres announcer Rick Jeanneret. But this one should also fill a niche for other viewers, particularly those with an interest in indie films, neo noir, and madcap takes on science history. A peculiar, enjoyable film.