In The Opportunists, the debut feature by writer/director Myles Connell, the stakes are low, the relationships are subtle, and Christopher Walken hardly raises his voice, barking only a single syllable in a fleeting moment of anguish. Of course, one of the many pleasures of Walken is watching him lose his cool, but here -- perhaps because his character's cool is already shot to hell -- he simply struggles with issues of pride and money, just like a normal person. Although this could make for a terrible snoozefest, under the actor's capable auspices, Connell's somewhat inert narrative becomes a viable portrait, a familiar and memorable snapshot glimpsed in a stranger's wallet.
On the surface, this is a heist movie, and Walken plays former safecracker and ex-con Victor Kelly, who now spends his days performing precision auto repairs. Unfortunately, work is spotty in the mildly depressed neighborhood of Sunnyside, Queens, and he's having a hard time covering his bills, providing for his daughter, Miriam (Vera Farmiga), and keeping his Aunt Dierdre (Anne Pitoniak) in an acceptable retirement home. The pressure's on, in the form of bounced checks and lame excuses, so when an enthusiastic young man named Michael (Peter McDonald) arrives from Ireland to meet his "famous mobster" cousin, Vic begins to glance a few degrees off the straight and narrow. Although he yearns to maintain his clean slate of ten years' duration, there's not much hope on the horizon to keep him inspired.
A seemingly innocent baseball game becomes a cauldron for crime when oily Pat Duffy (Donal Logue) and dubious Jesus Del Toro (José Zúñiga) make Vic an offer he can't refuse. Both men work the graveyard security shift for a local warehouse, and they've noted the regular skimming performed by their boss (Jerry Grayson), who keeps his wads of cash safe from the IRS in a triple-locked vault. Teaming with technical wizard Mort Stein (Tom Noonan), the guys persuade Vic -- aided by his delighted cousin -- to polish up his old skills with the dials and tumblers. As his car repairs fizzle and his landlord cracks down, Vic's relish for robbery increases. He'd rather not court the risk, but he's fresh out of options.
This would be a cut-and-dried tale of a selfish man absconding with someone else's loot if it weren't for two elements Connell has built into his movie. The first is Vic, who's less a greedy individual than a misplaced variable in an unfair and unbalanced equation. An average Joe who'll wear an apron to cook for his daughter and a snazzy bowling shirt to show the world his style (Walken also continues to give great hair), Vic is a product of his environment, and he's not anxious to gamble away his comfortable place in it. Despite his reluctance, though, he's forced to admit, "The regular-citizen thing is not going too good."
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He makes that blunt confession to his girlfriend, Sally (Cyndi Lauper), who provides the movie's second vital ingredient, a gravitational center. A wild card not for randomness or jollification but simply because this is Lauper playing sheer solemnity, Sally gives Vic both a warm emotional home and his greatest challenge: cold disapproval. Although she's acutely aware of Vic's pride ("a real trait of some men who are not quite making it," as the director puts it), she can't help but offer him assistance, which he can't help but refuse. Hovering in her bar with her calculations and hopeful renovations, she may be the voice of reason, but for Vic, she's simply not the voice of empowerment. "Vic, please take the loan and make me happy," she tells him, offering her savings -- but nothing would make him more miserable.
The relationship between Walken and Lauper is entirely plausible, which also means it's not exaggerated or exciting. This seems intentional, a quest for emotional authenticity, but Connell is puritanical about deflecting their passions, keeping his scripted lovers chaste and noble and altogether a bit flat. Lauper gives a deft and understated performance, and Walken delivers a deceptively calm soul, so their struggle for prosperity leaves an impression -- even if their shared development moves slower than molasses on Pluto.
All in all, the movie's best moments come not from romance or thrills, but from the neighborhood's peculiar inhabitants (especially the crackling Logue, rising star of The Tao of Steve), who are directed and captured in an offhand, casual style. The fresh immigrant Michael -- sort of a surrogate for the Irish-born director -- provides an angle on their American strangeness (you can feel his crush on this country), playing up their initially invisible eccentricities. An autographed baseball here ("I hadda pay for it," explains Grayson), a malfunctioning Buick there ("It's you, it's classy, it's tough!" proclaims Walken in his sales pitch), and the neighborhood feels genuine. The drawback is that it also feels a bit precious. Once Connell finds his feet, he just may stride forth with an Important American Movie. Until then, The Opportunists is simply a whiff of great unwashedness yet to come.