‘LaRoy’ Review: Steve Zahn Is a Grifting Wannabe Detective in Texas Blackmail Comedy

When Ray Jepsen (John Magaro) pulls into a strip club parking to blow his brains out, his plans for the rest of the week are the furthest thing from his mind. But that’s one of the many, many downsides of suicide that nobody talks about — you create scheduling nightmares for everyone else in your life. And it’s particularly inconvenient when a local sleazebag erroneously believes that he hired you to carry out a murder that must be done tomorrow.

But that’s just life in LaRoy, Texas. Shane Atkinson’s feature directorial debut takes place in a fictional town where residents only have three interests: extramarital affairs, blackmailing each other about extramarital affairs, and child beauty pageants. When an obstacle hinders someone’s ability to enjoy those treasured pastimes, murder is the most popular solution.

While suicide is never the answer, it’s easy to understand why Ray is so bummed. He’s second-in-command at his family’s hardware store, but his ironically-named older brother Junior (Matthew Del Negro) is determined to undermine his decisions at every turn. The constant belittling has essentially turned him into a powerless hourly employee at a store that bears his name. And while he theoretically owns 50 percent of it, he’s pretty sure that his brother is stealing from the company and cheating him out of most of the profits. Good times.

So when his private investigator buddy Skip (Steve Zahn) informs him that his wife is having an affair, he’s determined not to believe it. His marriage to former beauty queen (and current child pageant coach) Stacy-Lynn (Megan Stevenson) is the only thing keeping him going. He tells Skip — a bolo tie-wearing, unlicensed aspiring detective whose meager client list is the laughingstock of the local police department — to let the matter die.

But Stacy-Lynn’s disinterest in hiding her affair makes that rather difficult. Her respect for her husband is so low that she has no problem getting dressed up and leaving for the night without even giving him the courtesy of crafting a real excuse. Left without any wins or anyone to share the losses with, Ray decides to buy a gun.

His suicide attempt is cut short when a stranger bursts into his truck and hands him an envelope full of cash with an address on it. This man was supposed to meet a hitman in the strip club parking lot, but ends up getting into the wrong car. Ray initially tries to back out of the misunderstanding, but being mistaken for an assassin is the most respect he’s felt in years. He agrees to carry out the hit — if only to feel alive for a few days before he offs himself.

The first murder is easy enough, but Ray soon realizes that he has stumbled into a web of infidelity and deception that involves damn-near everyone in LaRoy. His anonymous criminal patron isn’t satisfied with just the killing — he also wants $250,000 that was stashed in the victim’s safe. Ray has no idea where that money is, but he makes plenty of new friends when local creeps and deadbeats begin emerging from the woodwork to demand their cut of it. Suddenly Ray finds himself with a new zest for life and a dozen enemies who want him dead.

It becomes clear that the only way out of this mess is to get to the bottom of the blackmail ring that has engulfed the town and find the $250,000 that everyone wants. But Ray’s formerly-depressing existence means he doesn’t have a deep bench of friends to call on for help. He turns to Skip — or more accurately, Skip blackmails Ray into turning to him — and the two incompetent men set out to outsmart the villains pulling the strings in LaRoy.

The twisty crime comedy wears its obvious Coen brothers influences on its sleeve, but a hilarious ensemble of larger-than-life characters keeps you so entertained that there’s hardly time to wonder if you’re watching something derivative. The generally solid plot takes a few ridiculous turns that require some suspension of disbelief, but watching Skip and Ray hunt down lust-filled, money-hungry idiots (Brad LeLand’s turn as brash car dealership owner Adam LeDoux is a particular highlight) never gets old.

And despite some fun stretches of zany action, Atkinson wisely makes sure his characters never stray too far from the bleak hopelessness that we met them in. Watching “LaRoy” is a lot like the seedy motel affairs that all of its characters seem to be having — two hours of fun, followed by a tragic feeling of emptiness and a desire for a shower.

Grade: B+

“LaRoy” premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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