There’s no reason to expect much from a broadly stereotyped comedy about a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon who experiences a change of heart after he’s forced to share a prison cell with a goofy Mexican. In fact, there’s every reason to expect the worst. But Cellmates works surprisingly well, until it’s boxed in by the confines of its low budget and thin premise.
In East Texas in the late 1970s, Klan leader Leroy Lowe (Tom Sizemore) runs afoul of the law and lands in Low Lee Tuna State Prison, run by a warden (Stacy Keach) who takes abnormal pride in the award-winning potatoes farmed by his inmates. The warden delights in the opportunity to pair the Klansman with wild-haired migrant worker Emilio Ortiz (Héctor Jiménez), who has been jailed for radical activity. Emilio proves to be Leroy’s opposite number, not so much because he represents the immigrant scourge Leroy deplores, but because he greets hardship with naïve good cheer and extends friendship even to this gruff, bitter, militant bigot. The two bond, slowly, as Emilio helps Leroy communicate in Spanish with the warden’s improbably gorgeous maid (Olga Segura), who — just as improbably — evinces an interest in Lowe.
The film starts off reminiscent (perhaps overly so) of the Coen Brothers, especially in their Southern-fried mode: dialogue and narration that mix the homespun with the highfalutin, deadpan-zany performances, eccentric camera angles, characters with peculiar obsessions, old-timey music, a simple but effective color scheme, and a pompous authority figure bloviating from behind a big desk. Cellmates doesn’t operate on the same level of manic invention as, say, Raising Arizona, but it soon hits its comic stride, blending tongue-in-cheek verbal humor with some inspired visual gags. Then, however, it goes where it’s going a little too predictably and sentimentally. The overwhelming bulk of Cellmates takes place on a mere four or five sets, and when it runs out of ideas, the repetitiveness feels claustrophobic even by prison-movie standards.
It’s some sort of accomplishment for Sizemore, an actor who has often played the most despicable person in films full of such characters, that one of his most likable roles is as a Klansman. Through his expressions and speech patterns, he finds humor and humanity in this hateful man. Jiménez’s performance falls squarely in the dubious tradition of Latino buffoonery, but there’s a winning sweetness to Emilio. Best of all is Keach as the warden, in a rare, gratifying, plum role, acting as ornery as he did beneath that hideous old-man makeup 32 years ago in Brewster McCloud.
Cellmates could’ve been more inventive. With such an obvious destination in sight, I wish director Jesse Baget and co-writer Stefania Moscato had found a less predictable route to get there, and had managed to keep the laughs coming during the third act’s heartfelt turn. It also could have been tougher: Loew, for instance, could have been paired with a cellmate as intransigent as he is instead of with a saintly clown. The film skirts real issues by playing its premise as slapstick and shoving its protagonist into an unlikely change of heart. Then again, a more realistic treatment might have collapsed under its own weight. By playing it safe, Cellmates gets comic mileage out of ethnic and regional stereotypes, but the absurdity of bigotry is its ultimate punchline.