Friday, May 18, 2012

Neglected Gems #15: Palookaville (1995)

Palookaville, the title of the disarming first feature by Alan Taylor, refers to the generic state of existence shared by the three main characters. Russell (Vincent Gallo), Sid (William Forsythe) and Jerry (Adam Trese) are unemployed friends in their thirties – too old to be living the way they are, and painfully conscious of it. Russell boards with his family; he survives off the salary his brother-in-law (Gareth Williams), a cop, brings home. Russell’s girl, Laurie (Kim Dickens), lives next door, so he has to sneak through their bedroom windows to sleep with her. Sid’s wife left him ten years ago; he lives alone with her photo on the night table, and with his smelly dog. His phone is disconnected, his couch is repossessed, and he takes most of his dinners at Russell’s house (he’s a favorite of Russell’s mom’s). Jerry’s wife Betty (Lisa Gay Hamilton) works in a supermarket, where her manager paws her; when Jerry interrupts a groping session, he blows up and the boss retaliates by firing Betty. Furious, she makes Jerry go back and apologize so she can continue to support the family (they’ve got a baby).

These low-rent types keep planning initiatives – legal and illegal – to shake themselves loose from their rut, and then trip over themselves when they try to carry them out. They’re the sad-sack descendants of the characters Paddy Chayefsky used to write in the fifties. But unlike Chayefsky, the screenwriter, David Epstein (who was inspired by some stories by Italo Calvino), has a gift for dialogue. He’s also got an idiosyncratic sense of humor: the jokes are like trick pool shots that ricochet off three sides before pinging the ball into the pocket. In the film’s opening sequence, the guys try to knock off a jewelry store but since Jerry, the layout man, screwed up the geography, they end up in the adjacent bakery instead. (Epstein reworks the botched robbery sequence that climaxes the classic Italian heist farce, Big Deal on Madonna Street, but here it’s just the intro.) When the cops arrive, Jerry’s hiding behind the pastry tray, with telltale dabs of powdered sugar all over his face. (He and one of the cops reach for the same brownie.) Jerry escapes detection, but Ed, one of the officers on the scene, is sure he knows who’s responsible. His hands are tied, though, because later on that evening he drops by to visit the local whore (Frances McDormand, in a lovely cameo) and Russell, who’s a pal of hers, is sitting around her apartment shooting the breeze. Russell and Ed – Russell’s “cop-in-law,” as Laurie calls him disdainfully – are in a comic stalemate.

Palookaville is a scruffy, relaxed comedy with undercurrents of feeling. Taylor was an NYU graduate who’d directed some episodes of the TV show Homicide (he later became known for his work on The Sopranos) but he was already a master at tone shifts and atmosphere. His cinematographer, John Thomas, eventually wound up on Sex and the City but in his younger days – he also shot Barcelona – he worked in the vein of the great French New Wave photographer Raoul Coutard, vivifying a reduced urban palette and underlighting for texture rather than to make an obvious sociological point. Taylor’s wonderful with the actors; there isn’t a false note in any of the performances. As Jerry the befuddled innocent, Trese is a marvelous clown. And when Bridget Ryan shows up as Enid, a clerk at a used-clothing store, that superb, underrated character actor William Forsythe lucks out with an ideal comic partner. Enid sees Sid at a bus stop, trying unsuccessfully to scam the driver into giving him a free ride by putting on a blind act, and she’s so impressed that she invites him in out of the rain and ends up sharing his bed. She empathizes; she says she’s faked blindness and deafness, too – for the experience. Forsythe and Ryan make a sublimely loopy couple; her huge, warm eyes seem to take the chill off his scrap of a life. Palookaville is a movie about living on a shoestring but it doesn’t feel emotionally deprived.

 Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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