What to eat while watching: Barbecue
Set in the 80's, this is the almost high-risk story of two ne'er-do-well musicians who become safe crackers accidentally. After playing a lousy gig at a Polish old folks' home, Sam and Eddie discuss their failure as musicians. As prog-pop singer/song-writers who play on those extinct keyboards designed to be worn as guitars, they just don't have much of an audience. Sam, a self-deluding, but nerdily lovable hippie-dweeb (does that summarize a generation or what?) insists that they are starting to hit their strong period as a lounge act. But the movie is narrated by his voice overs-VO's that are much wiser than the character who tries to convince Eddy, an overly self-aware scaredy-rebel (also a generational thing), that they rocked the old Poles.
For Sam, think David Byrne, Ween, The Feelies. For Eddy, think Corey Feldman in Stand By Me grown up a little, River Phoenix in Stand By Me, grown up and slapped down a little, or Michael J. Fox's much less popular brother. If you can't think of these, then this movie isn't for you. Stop reading now, youngster or old-timer as the case may be.
The two boys, to salve their rock'n'roll wounds, go to a bar to play foozball. There, they are accosted by "Veal Chop" (Mark Ruffalo or Josh Pais-you've seen him in other roles), a gopher for the Jewish Mafia who mistakes these two for another couple of guys that also hang out at this bar. The other guys are pro safe crackers. So professional are they, that they can discuss the relative intelligence of raccoons and pigs as they rob vast fortunes. Since these two are known to drink Slo Gin fizzes at this bar, Veal, in a characteristically careless move, buys his two new friends Slo Gin fizzes, then assumes they are the prize safe guys.
He convinces them to try to break a safe, and once that goes awry, they fall into the gaze of mob boss Big Fat Bernie Gale. Gale needs to have his gopher "off" these two nerds, but they save themselves by insisting that they are indeed the best safe men in the business. With the mob boss not so sure, he proposes a test: three jobs they must pull in order to get in his good graces and save their lives.
It's a silly set-up, and the jobs themselves are silly as well as various random events keep mitigating their incompetence. And these stretches in the plot are not done carelessly: they aren't cop-outs. One job, for instance, is pulled off by he pros as these impostors fail. Big Fat Bernie knows through the crime grapevine that the heist was pulled and feels that his geeks' insisting they've failed only proves that they are holding out of him in spite of his power to kill them. He concludes that they have "balls like casabas" and gives them another go.
A rival mob boss, played by the wonderful Harvey Fierstein, has a lovely daughter. Through strange but still-plausible coincidences, Sam falls in love with her and she digs him too, even though she knows he's a criminal. (Digging criminals is a thing with her). Their romance is by no means Hollywood: he's awkward, and she's mellow about it. Another funny coincidence is who her prior beau turns out to be.
All in all, it's a silly fling, similar to Owen Wilson's Bottle Rocket in its portrayal of rank amateur criminals of the X generation doing silly things. These characters are likeable, but not as deeply plumbed as in the Wilson's superior film. Also the wrap up has at least one rather gaping hole in it, which diminishes the tenuous suspension of disbelief that informs the rest of the movie.
A great writer and director can carry unlikely situations into believability almost without limit as long as he or she keeps walking that tightrope of plausibility. But once one event or aspect fails to toe that line, the whole story tends to drop into pap. To a degree, that's what happens here, though the fall is cushioned somewhat other aspects of the movie, to whit:
Also, Little Big Fat Bernie Gale, Jr., Big Fat's son is a nice touch with a great name. Veal Chop, Big, and Little Big are like a family, and the film culminates at the little fat boy's bar-mitzvah. At the time, I found this amusing, but here again, the film treaded some risky turf: depending on my mood, or the weather, I could see myself as having perceived the entire thing as Borscht-belt schtick and dismissed it with a "feh." As I was in a forgiving mood, I found it all pretty funny, but it runs that thin line between good and too much.
In general, no real risk happens in the film. Though our protagonists
are, supposedly, in real danger of being killed, the tension of this situation
never really registered on my suspense radar, perhaps because Sam is so
deep in denial, perhaps because it was obvious there would be some kind
of happy resolution (with or without a sound plot). Fun though.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.