American Dresser is a simple road-trip tale of a weary older man who, after discovering a secret shortly after his wife dies, embarks on a coast-to-coast motorcycle trip to help exorcise some demons, get some closure, and enjoy life once more. It’s exceptionally well acted and directed, with just a few potholes in the plot along the way, and it’s a fine homage to all of the road movies you’ve ever seen — including, yes, “Easy Rider.”
John Moore (Tom Berenger, “Brake”) is a widower. And an alcoholic. And a grump. And he’s estranged from his two grown daughters. And he feels very sorry for himself. He drags himself to his wife’s funeral, late, much to the chagrin of the other attendees. He’s passed out more than he’s standing up. He’s a mess, is what I’m getting at here. His daughters are angry with him. And one day, feeling really pathetic, John gets a record (it’s like a big CD, kids) out to play, and he discovers a note inside from another woman addressed to John — but until now unseen by him. We don’t see precisely what’s written in the note, but whatever it is, it’s a big revelation to our pal John. He decides right then and there that he’s going to go on this odyssey with his beloved and neglected bike, a Harley (the Dresser of the title).
John means to take this spiritual and emotional trip by his lonesome, but his old war buddy Charley (Keith David, “The Nice Guys”) has other plans — he invites himself along. Charley was John’s master sergeant in Vietnam, but now he’s facing the very real prospect of having his leg amputated. And he wants to have his own last ride, so he’s not going to let John have the fun all alone.
The trip is not uneventful. The boys’ very first stop is at a biker bar, and they immediately run into trouble when a local redneck bumps into the hobbled, cane-brandishing Charley. A brawl ensues. A stranger, later identified as Willie (writer-director Carmine Cangialosi) kicks butt alongside the codgers, and the trio flee. Willie asks if he can tag on “for a few miles,” and John readily agrees.
The freedom of the open road leads to some male bonding, although Charley consistently regards Willie as an unwelcome newcomer. He could have held his own at the bar, Charley claims. (He could not have; he is old and frail.) Lot of suspicion on the part of Mister Charley. Regardless, we the viewers are treated to a lot of beautiful scenery as our helmeted heroes traverse the land.
A second stop is to the cousin (Penelope Ann Miller, “The Birth of a Nation”) of Charley’s fiancee; she and John hit it off quite famously. Miller, frankly, looks as radiant here as she’s ever looked, and that’s saying something. She doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but she certainly lights up every scene she’s in. Along the same lines, Gina Gershon (“Blockers”) also shines as (in flashbacks) John’s late wife. Both actresses are exceedingly luminous and real assets to the movie. Bruce Dern (“The Hateful Eight”) also makes an appearance as a self-styled king of the road (driving a van in which he keeps his own bike), and his scenes really pop with energy and appeal.
As I mentioned, there are some plot issues to American Dresser; the problem isn’t that events are ridiculous, it’s that they are predictable and obvious. I mean, of course Willie gets busy with a cocktail waitress and then is serendipitously invited to a raging wild party by a sexy biker named Summer (Becky O’Donohue, “Don Jon”). And of course Willie seems to be hiding something — why else would he be hanging with these old fellas? And of course a sheriff (Jeff Fahey, “The Hollow”) that the trio encounters is corrupt and evil. In fact, that last little subplot feels like it’s completely tacked on, almost as an afterthought. It’s a side quest, one that could easily have been left on the cutting-room floor without disrupting the flow of the movie and the chemistry among the actors.
But, honestly, those issues with the plot are infinitesimal, like pock marks on a shiny fender. Cangialosi’s script and direction are both solid, and he does quite well in the plum role of Willie, the mysterious biker. American Dresser may feel a little contrived in spots, but strong performances by Tom Berenger (where’s he been?) and the eternally terrific Keith David keep the film grounded and enjoyable to watch.