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"Fuck fuckin' Hollywood, those queer dick-smokin' motherfuckers," snarls Billy, the hot-tempered, acid-tongued suburban brat-turned-mobster at the core of Amongst Friends.
Every incendiary frame of 26-year-old Long Island native Rob Weiss's stunning feature film debut echoes the sentiment. The independently-produced Amongst Friends came out of nowhere to galvanize audiences at this year's Sundance Film Festival with all the subtlety of a well-executed sucker punch to an unsuspecting jaw. Suddenly Weiss has overtaken Quentin Tarantino as the director most likely to be branded "the next Scorsese."
And with good reason. Weiss and crew have fashioned a banquet from a macaroni-and-cheese budget without kowtowing to a single Armani-clad studio head. Of the three leading men in the film, only Joseph Lindsey, who plays Billy, had any prior feature film experience -- bit parts in the obscure Toxic Avenger, Kabuki Man, and The C-Word. Producer Matthew Blumberg is a recent Yale University anthropology grad and former ski instructor who never produced a movie before. Weiss himself is a former nightclub promoter who got thrown out of both Parsons School of Design and the New School in New York City. That such a ragtag band of misfits and outsiders could produce such an auspicious film is a staggering accomplishment and further testimony (as if any were needed) to the creative torpor gripping mainstream Tinsel Town. Maybe Hollywood just isn't capable of making films this lean and powerful any more.
Just as Scorsese has his Little Italy, Weiss has his Five Towns, an upper-middle-class area of Long Island where sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers grapple with the legacy of material affluence and spiritual void their parents have bequeathed them. Andy, Billy, and Trevor are three buddies growing up in that milieu who find themselves increasingly drawn to the world of action and criminal glamour inhabited by Andy's bookie grandfather, and away from the Ivy League pedigrees and two-Beemer marriages of their classmates.
The boys start with playground hustles and work their way up the ladder to drug drops. Trevor gets busted while doing a drug deal that Andy was scheduled to run A and draws two years of hard time. While Trevor languishes in jail, Billy dives headlong into the wiseguy life, prospers, and falls hard for Trevor's loyal squeeze, Laura. (As in Scorsese's Mean Streets, the film to which Amongst Friends is deservedly compared, Weiss's women are basically animated trophies, and Laura, beautiful, loyal, and rich, is the grand prize.) Andy, hoping to someday emulate his friend's success, becomes Billy's chauffeur-gopher, chafing under his old pal's caustic, escalating verbal abuse (Andy: "Why you dissin' me?" Billy: "'Dis?' You're a walkin' fuckin' identity crisis!").
The interplay among the three is the film's essence. Lindsey's Billy is edgier and more volatile than Ray Liotta's jealous hoodlum in Something Wild. Steve Parlavecchio's Andy is the quintessential small-time hustler with big-time dreams. Patrick McGaw's Trevor is reflective and soulful, if a bit given to posing melodramatically in doorways, and you just know that when he gets out of stir Laura's going to tumble right back into his sensitive embrace. And Billy, with his hard-won juice and his macho swagger, isn't going to like it one bit. No one's worked the friendship-loyalty-betrayal-tragedy vein this adroitly since The Deer Hunter. Andy, Billy, and Trevor are Weiss's X Generation Michael, Nick, and Steve.
Weiss's camera movement, insight into the wiseguy mindset, and integration of popular rock music into the soundtrack are like pages lifted right out of the Mean Streets textbook. While the young director's work is neither as seamless nor as assured as Scorsese's, the newcomer has an ear for biting comic dialogue that his exalted counterpart would surely admire. Sighs one tired old gangster to another, "There's nobody around anymore. Everybody died. The rest went to Miami Beach."
"Who are these kids?" his befuddled cohort asks about the upstarts.
"They're us all over again," replies the first gangster. You could easily envision Scorsese and DeNiro uttering the same lines to each other after viewing Amongst Friends.
In the wake of the Sundance festival, Weiss and his eye-popping debut have been garnering widespread acclaim. The movie's brilliance brought the studio people to Weiss's doorstep by the limo load. Before you could say "Rodeo Drive," Weiss was relocating to L.A. and inking deals with Universal and TriStar. It's a move that will make him rich, but could leave fans of cutting-edge cinema poorer.
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