Blank for my horses?

Beer For My Horses
United States, 2008

Directed By: Michael Salomon
Written By: Rodney Carrington & Toby Keith
Starring: Toby Keith, Rodney Carrington, Tom Skerritt, David Allan Coe, Willie Nelson, Ted Nugent
Running Time: 97 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual humor and dialogue, language, drug content and brief nudity
3 out of 5 stars

When the filmʼs publicist asked me if I would like a screening copy of Beer For My Horses to review, I said yes and immediately regretted it. A star vehicle for country singer/songwriter Toby Keith, I had seen the ads and knew that it was targeted quite specifically at a demographic that I was not a part of in any way, shape, or form: I donʼt listen to country music; I donʼt dream of driving a bigger truck than the truck I currently donʼt drive; I never watched Blue Collar TV because I never laughed when I did. Yet here I was, agreeing to deliver a critical opinion on a film that combined all three of those elements. This wasnʼt going to end well.

Films that 1) star musicians in the lead role and 2) are ostentatiously named after one of said musicianʼs hit songs/albums/stage names can go either way. On the positive end of things you have Princeʼs Purple Rain, a certifiable hit both cinematically and musically. The negative end of the scale, however, weighs a metaphorical ton with such career destroyers as Cool As Ice and Glitter, which Vanilla Ice and Mariah Carey (respectively) probably continue to have blood-curdling nightmares about. Fortunately, Beer For My Horses (named after a hit single by Toby Keith and Willie Nelson) falls into the former category. By the time the credits had rolled, the film had managed to win me over, and while I wasnʼt lying on the floor in some state of euphoric awe, I had thoroughly enjoyed its humor, quirks, and shockingly competent supporting cast. Consider me mildly charmed.

Toby Keith and Rodney Carrington star in the title roles, beer-swilling deputy Rack and his dopey sidekick Lonnie, who hold court in a small Oklahoman town. After foiling some fertilizer theft, they inadvertently anger a Mexican drug lord by imprisoning his caricature of a brother. The drug lord, understandably upset, kidnaps Rack’s love interest and demands an exchange, sending the two deputies on a cross-country rescue mission, complete with idealistic hookers and sideshow carnies.

While the story is painfully recycled, the script (by both Keith and Carrington) is surprisingly spry. It sparkles with down-home colloquialisms like "swelled bigger than an 8 legged dog tick" and features an incredibly diverse roster of eclectic characters. There’s the elderly department secretary (Tish Rayburn-Miller) who is both a manners nazi and a twilight sex fiend; Willie Nelson pops up as a moonshine-brewing carnival ringmaster in one of the film’s most surreal sidetrips (a midget named Merriweather lights himself on fire and a woman named Two Ton Tina gives Lonnie a bearhug. No, seriously); and Ted Nugent (in what is easily my favorite role) plays an uzi-toting mute named Skunk who was raised on a reservation, has his ‘badge’ tattooed over his heart, and shoots arrows into various posteriors (both man and donkey). And how do you explain the musical interlude at an interstate rest stop where Lonnie sings "You Make Me Want To Shout" while urinating, and a posse of gang bangers (who just happen to be lounging in the bathroom) spontaneously break into harmony? Beer For My Horses is chock full of such bizarre moments and asides, and while I’m tempted to suspect that Keith and Carrington were downing Nelson’s moonshine during most of the writing process, I’m more inclined to believe that this is a cult classic in the making. If Napoleon Dynamite was for the hipster set, Beer For My Horses if for the good-‘ole-boy one.

The heart of the film, however, lies with Toby Keith, who manages an effortless aura of self-deprecation. Although it’s obvious he would like to spin this off into more meaty leading man roles, he conspicuously lacks the pretension that most star musicians would bring to such a role. Lesser films would have the roadside bombshell flutter her lashes all "come-hither" like at the strapping hero; here he just gets the finger. Keith isn’t taking himself too seriously, and that decision earns the film untold dividends.

Sadly, the directorial skill behind Beer For My Horses does not match the cleverness of the script. It is barely cinematic, having been shot in wides and mediums (probably due in part to time and fiscal restrictions); the sound design is uninspired (the gunshots during the final shootout likely came from a royalty free sound effects library); and the little green screen work that exists in the film is woefully amateur. And although Keith effortlessly exudes his unpretentious charisma the majority of the film, whenever director Michael Salomon asks him to get serious, he ends up grimacing like a child who just realized that the Halloween candy he’d been saving for 6 months went bad. Since both director and star’s previous experience is almost exclusively limited to music videos (excepting a single dramatic turn by Keith in ’06s Broken Bridges), that might explain the mediocre quality of the dramatic elements, but it doesn’t bode well for either of their respective future careers.
But does any of that really matter? To the film’s target demographic, probably not. Beer For My Horses fetishizes big trucks with gaudy airbrush jobs, features a soundtrack of country hits that I couldn’t identify if my life depended on it, and mixes romance and corn dogs without a trace of irony. I don’t understand any of those things, but I can appreciate that others do. If you can fill in the following blank ("______________________ and beer for my horses") without missing a beat, then purchase yourself a ticket posthaste.

About the author:

Evan Derrick loves movies, loves talking about movies, and even makes them from time to time. In the rare moment when movies aren’t consuming his grey matter, he enjoys eating grilled cheese sandwiches, playing with his baby daughter, and pretending to be the senior editor for Use the Tulsa Today search feature to read previous reviews by this author.