In the small, quiet towns of New Hampshire, there’s not much a fellow can do to make a name for himself. John Rudgate knows this, but he doesn’t care. He wants people to remember him even if everything they remember is a lie.
“Live Free or Die,” New Hampshire’s rather dour state motto, is the film’s title and a perfect example of the hardcore, no-nonsense persona that Rudgate (Aaron Stanford) wants to establish. Going by the nickname Rugged, he commits minor frauds and negligible acts of vandalism, then exaggerates them into a vast criminal lifestyle when he brags to his fellow citizens. (He takes credit for the town’s one unsolved murder, though there’s no way he actually did it.) Rugged is a coward and a wimp, but he has the mouthy attitude of Al Capone.
Rugged partners himself with Lagrand (Paul Schneider), a goony, dim-witted admirer who is in many ways his opposite. Lagrand wants to commit some cool crimes because he’s too dumb to realize what the true consequences would be; Rugged is smart enough to know the repercussions and thus wants to avoid actually doing anything wrong. But both men want to be feared and admired. When they poison someone and the guy winds up dead, Lagrand thinks it’s awesome while Rugged is terrified that he may have actually killed someone. He thought it would just make the guy sick.
Lagrand’s sister Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel), who inherited their parents’ self-storage business, knows Rugged is a loser. The local police — Sheriff Monson (Kevin Dunn) and Lt. Putney (Michael Rapaport) — hear whisperings of some local idiot perpetrating some stupid scheme, but Putney is preoccupied with fears that his wife is cheating on him. Hesh (Judah Friedlander), a potty-mouthed hardware-store owner with whom Rugged has had some dealings, figures into everything somehow.
Written and directed by “Seinfeld” scribes Gregg Kavet and Andy Robin, the film is a lukewarm comedy that gets more mileage out of its rather simple premise — craven wannabe tries to maintain fearsome reputation without actually committing any crimes — than you’d think it would. Aaron Stanford doesn’t give Rugged depth, exactly, but the character doesn’t become tiresome, either. And Paul Schneider is enjoyably loopy as Lagrand, playing him somewhere between gay and Will Ferrell.
Nonetheless, the film never rises above average. There are many small laughs, two or three big ones, and a lot of wide open space in between where the film ambles along unremarkably, just like life in New Hampshire does.
C+ (1 hr., 29 min.; )