LaRoy, Texas (2024)

John Magaro and Steve Zahn are swallowed in a crime spree in the comedy thriller “LaRoy, Texas.”

‘LaRoy Texas’ goes about as ‘Fargo’ as you can go

If you’re going to rip off esteemed artists, you could do a lot worse than the Coen Brothers. And for his directorial debut, Shane Atkinson does a competent job of copying their homework with “LaRoy, Texas,” a goofy crime dramedy shot directly out of the “Fargo” canon.

In truth, it veers closer to Noah Hawley’s TV adaptation than it does the Coens’ Oscar-winning movie. Either way, originality is not Atkinson’s strong suit in swapping out Minnesota and North Dakota for Texas. Where he succeeds is in assembling a terrific ensemble to portray wacky characters who are doltishly funny but capable of some lethal shenanigans in the name of love and loyalty.

At the center of it all is Ray Jepsen, a hapless milquetoast who co-owns the local hardware store with his unscrupulous brother, Junior. Ray, as played wonderfully by a plumped-up John Magaro of “Past Lives” fame, is the saddest of moviedom’s sad sacks. Everything about him shouts “loser.” He’s also utterly oblivious to the fact his wife, a former beauty queen turned child pageant coach, is blatantly cheating on him.

Cue Steve Zahn’s equally hapless private investigator, Skip, who has taken it upon himself to photograph Ray’s beloved Stacy-Lynn (Megan Stevenson) entering cheap motels pretty much nightly to tryst with man/men unknown. At first, Ray doesn’t believe what’s staring him in the face. But once he gets a semblance of a clue, he heads over to the gun shop to purchase a weapon to do himself in.

Atkinson, who penned 2019’s rancid “Poms” about a senior citizen cheerleading squad, derails Ray’s suicide plan by introducing a stupid plot twist in which a case of mistaken identity touches off a maddening crime spree in the formerly sleepy Texas dirt water of LaRoy. Incidences of blackmail, robbery, murder, you name it, are suddenly breaking out all over. And all arrows wrongly point toward Ray as the instigator.

The ensuing plot gets increasingly convoluted, but if you can stay with it, there is much fun to be had at the expense of a dozen or so townsfolk who are about to have their various dirty little secrets revealed. Assuming, of course, they manage to stay alive long enough. And this is all before Harry (Dylan Baker), the REAL hitman for whom Ray is confused, hits LaRoy looking to collect what he’s owed.

Preposterous, I know. Somehow Atkinson keeps it going, even luring you further into the miserable lives of a town of nitwits who can’t get out of their own way. It’s never LOL funny, but it is irresistibly humorous, even when the body count starts to mount.

What sees it through is the divine chemistry Zahn and Magaro share while creating a delightful schtick in which Skip persistently inserts himself into Ray’s messed-up life. Not because he wants to help out an old friend, but because he sees an opportunity to gain legitimacy among the locals who’ve always considered him a joke.

Together, Zahn and Magaro render it impossible not to sympathize with characters who may be morons but are always righteous in their idiocy. That’s why you love them or fear for them as they get in deeper and deeper over their heads. It’s the classic “Fargo” formula of the meek conquering the town’s corrupt power mongers almost by accident.

Likewise, Matthew Del Negro as Ray’s preening older brother, Junior; Brad Leland’s cheatin’-hearted car dealer, Adam LeDoux; and Stevenson’s marvelously slutty Stacy-Lynn prove to be screenwriter concoctions you adore hating.

All in all, it’s not a bad effort by Atkinson, who displays plenty of promise as a director. But much like Ray and Skip, he’ll need to do a lot more to earn the respect of his peers and audience. Attempting to emulate the Coen Brothers is probably NOT the best way to do it. But, damn, “LaRoy, Texas” sure is a blast.

Movie review

LaRoy, Texas

Rated: Not rated

Cast: John Magaro, Steve Zahn, Dylan Baker, Megan Stevenson, Matthew Del Negro and Brad Leland

Director: Shane Atkinson

Writer: Shane Atkinson

Runtime: 110 minutes

Where: In theaters (limited) and streaming on demand starting April 12

Grade: B

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