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Boys' Town

The recession atmosphere of Alan Taylor's Palookaville is littered with mongrel dogs, old junker cars and busted dreams. Stubborn layers of grime and palpable malaise have settled on worn-out Jersey City, the movie's unlikely locale, and the downtrodden citizens squeeze scant pleasure from life drinking lousy coffee in the sap-colored light of the neighborhood greasy spoon, like leftovers from an Edward Hopper painting.

But guess what: Palookaville is one of the funniest, most winning comedies of the year.

Imagine "The Waste Land" inhabited by the Three Stooges, then stoked with a touch of old-fashioned Italian fatalism, and you'll begin to get the picture. But not the entire picture. Every time you think you've got a good look at the thing, it subtly shifts in tone and texture--surrealism to pathos, belly laugh to heartbreak.

The film's young anti-heroes--Jerry, Russell and Sid--are bewildered, jobless mooks with a lot of time on their hands and nothing in the bank. Lifelong friends united by failure, they now start daydreaming about larceny. It's not a full-time commitment to crime that interests them but "a momentary shift in lifestyles" to tide them over into better times. Predictably, though, they are three of the least competent thieves on the planet. When they try breaking into a jewelry store on a freezing winter's night, they wind up in the bakery next door, dusted with powdered sugar. When an armored car stuffed with cash rolls right into their laps, their relentless good-heartedness keeps them from scoring. They bungle and bungle, and slowly, they get into our good graces.

Sound like the tart, neo-realist short stories of Italo Calvino or the classic 1958 Italian caper comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street? Bingo. These are precisely the sources first-time director Taylor and playwright/screenwriter David Epstein acknowledge. But in transplanting their ham-handed strivers to a contemporary U.S. city on the verge of collapse, Taylor and Epstein also give us a new comic take on the futility of the American Dream and the sweet absurdity of native desire. Posing as crooks, these likable fools don't know what they want, and they don't recognize it when they see it. They're losers with murky dreams and plastic guns and they watch old crime movies in hopes of picking up a few tips, but they're as real as hunger.

Talk about a nice cast. Underfinanced independents like Taylor (who got this far on the strength of an NYU Film School short called That Burning Question) sometimes have a hard time rounding up good actors. These are Taylor-made. William Forsythe, TV's glowering Al Capone, here portrays Sid, a defeated, dog-loving dreamer so inept he can't even pull off a seeing-eye-dog/blind-man ruse to board a bus in a rainstorm. Edgy Vincent Gallo plays Russell, who believes he's some kind of sharpie but who's living a domestic nightmare, trapped in the same house with his nagging mother, sister and dumbbell brother-in-law, a huge cop named Ed. Adam Trese's immature Jerry is the married man of the hapless trio, whose wife, Betty (Lisa Gay Hamilton), holds the movie's only steady job. Jerry's always talking about not breaking the law, but shame draws him into his buddies' idiotic survival schemes.

These guys--and their amateurish plan to knock over a supermarket payroll--would be sufficient to carry most black comedies. But Taylor and Epstein also add a woman to each of these beleaguered lives, and that adds immeasurably to Palookaville's strange charm. That Jerry's long-suffering wife is black nicely complicates the subtext in this part of heavily ethnic Jersey City. That Russell's secret girlfriend, Laurie (Kim Dickens), lives four feet from his bedroom window, right across the alley, makes things convenient for them but doesn't dim her dreams of escape. That Enid (Bridgit Ryan) meets clumsy Sid in the used-clothing store where she works hints at second chances and gentle redemptions.

Let's not say too much more about plots or twists or comic ironies (all right?) except to note that this quirky glimpse of little guys and their disorderly dreams of comfort at last provides a kind of blessed release. We don't really expect Jerry, Russ and Sid to escape their personal Palookavilles, or to unloose their burdens, and they don't. But the fact that they creep forward at all in life provides as much satisfaction as all of the apocalyptic explosions and grandiose love conquests larger movies have to offer.

Say it quietly: Bravo to all hands.

Palookaville. Screenplay by David Epstein. Directed by Alan Taylor. With William Forsythe, Vincent Gallo, Adam Trese, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Bridgit Ryan.

 
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