"I coulda been a contender," Marlon Brando laments to Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront. Instead, he got "a one-way ticket to Palookaville."
Russ, Jerry, and Sid, the three unemployed Jersey City guys at the core of the droll, poignant new film Palookaville, share Brando's ultimate destination. Like the ex-pugilist, they've arrived at a place without hope or prospects. But unlike Brando's character, whose internal code of honor prevents him from accepting a dishonest, mob-sponsored job, Palookaville's three stooges react to their lack of options by voluntarily turning to larceny, at least temporarily. "I'm not talking about a life of crime," ringleader Russ rationalizes. "I'm talking about a momentary shift in lifestyles."
But making the decision to embrace lawlessness and successfully pulling off a heist are two very different things, especially with a crew as inept as Russ's. How incompetent are they? On their first job, a jewelry store burglary, the trio mistakenly breaks into the bakery next door. They're the gang that couldn't walk straight. "What kind of asshole robs a bakery?" Ed, a none-too-bright cop, wonders aloud. The answer, as it turns out, is an asshole like Ed's brother-in-law Russ.
Although filmed in modern-day New Jersey, Palookaville is loosely based on a volume of short stories published shortly after World War II by Italian author Italo Calvino. Inspired by the whimsical schemes and comic misadventures of Calvino's characters as they struggled to make ends meet in economically devastated postwar Italy, Palookaville producer Uberto Pasolini enlisted the aid of American playwright David Epstein to come up with a contemporary screenplay that would convey the spirit of Calvino's character-driven, humanist stories in much the same fashion that Robert Altman loosely adapted Raymond Carver's work into Short Cuts. Pasolini sought out Epstein after reading Exact Change -- one of the American's plays -- in which three petty hoodlums in search of a big score kidnap a dentist. In Epstein's affection for desperate characters in dire circumstances, Pasolini recognized the same sort of appreciation for the absurdity of everyday life that attracted him to Calvino's work. Pasolini suggested that Epstein also consider a lighthearted 1957 Italian film about a pawnshop robbery gone awry (Big Deal on Madonna Street) as a guide for helping to strike the appropriate balance between story and character.
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So Palookaville borrows its title from On the Waterfront, its overall concept from Short Cuts, its spirit from Italo Calvino's short stories, its screenwriter from the stage, and its tone from a Fifties-era Italian flick. But here's the irony: The film's biggest influence feels like none of these elements so much as Quentin Tarantino, who had nothing to do with Palookaville's making. The plot simultaneously echoes Reservoir Dogs and rejects that film's violence and cynicism. (The basic story still boils down to a bunch of verbose hoods who banter incessantly while executing a big heist in which something goes awry.) But in Palookaville's defining moment, a character with his back against the wall draws a gun and thinks long and hard about the consequences of firing it. These palookas fantasize about being tough guys, but have too much compassion for their fellow human beings to go through with it.
On another level, Vincent Gallo's mannerisms and speech patterns in the part of Russ so uncannily resemble those of Tarantino the performer that you wonder if the mimicry is intentional. (There is one big difference: Gallo can act.) Could these filmmakers actually have the audacity to lampoon the patron saint of clever, bloody, character-driven, dialogue-heavy, ensemble-acted indie action pics?
Judge for yourself. This reviewer has difficulty imagining that a movie as witty, insightful, and well-made as Palookaville wasn't perfectly aware of the full range of perspectives from which it might be perceived. But whether or not you interpret Palookaville as a reaction to Tarantino, just view it. This delightfully good-natured buddy-caper flick is definitely a contender.
Written by David Epstein; directed by Alan Taylor; with Vincent Gallo, Adam Trese, William Forsythe, Gareth Williams, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Bridgit Ryan, Kim Dickens, and Frances McDormand.