Crime doesn't pay

Desperate men take desperate measures in Palookaville and Ransom

As Palookaville begins, three wayward city boys--Jerry (Adam Trese), Sid (William Forsythe), and Russell (Vincent Gallo)--chisel their way through the outer wall of what they believe to be a jewelry store, only to find out that they've actually broken into the bakery next door. While Sid stands guard, Russell steals the cash from the register; Jerry scarfs down as many Danishes as he can, and shoves what he can't eat into his shirt for later consumption, even as the cops are bearing down. You'll never mistake this crew for criminal masterminds; you might not even think they are on the same page of the burglar's handbook. Russell is obviously frustrated by the penny-ante scale of the theft (he takes the money by rote, like he's entitled to it as a consolation prize), while Jerry acts as if he has hit the jackpot--free pastries!

After that scene, which plays out prior to the opening credits, it would be difficult to conceive how Palookaville could be called anything else. My dictionary defines a "palooka" as "an incompetent or easily defeated person," and that describes these men in spades. It isn't even the abortive heist itself that defines the robbers as oafish losers. They project defeat; it reeks from their pores like sweat. They're not merely failures at everything they do; they're failures at life. (Of course, they live in New Jersey.)

Although the plot bears a resemblance to Bottle Rocket--another tale of misguided, big-hearted crooks--the two movies otherwise share little in common. Bottle Rocket is endearing and eccentric, where profit isn't a motive; its robberies stand as an expression of friendship. By contrast, all the thieves in Palookaville need money, and it is desperation, not friendship, that drives them to crime. Pain often forms the emotional substance of comedy, but humor that arises from desperation can sting almost too much. In the way, Palookaville is less similar to Bottle Rocket than Welcome to the Dollhouse--which is less scabrous, perhaps, but has a similar tone and wallows in the same odd pitilessness for its characters. The eagerness with which Palookaville screenwriter, David Epstein, and director, Alan Taylor, glory in Sid, Jerry, and Russell's aggressive, almost resilient stupidity has the tang of ridicule to it. Even the ostensibly upbeat ending imbues the characters only with the most superficial patina of success; it seems clear that true happiness will be forever beyond their grasp. But while the filmmakers seem sometimes intolerant of their goofball heroes--who couldn't act guiltier if they took lessons from O.J. Simpson--Epstein and Taylor, unlike the makers of Dollhouse, are never outright cruel or meanspirited about their characters. The thieves may be abusive and arbitrary and short-tempered in their friendship, but there's no blaming them for it: Desperate times call for desperate measures.

It's difficult to be visually artful when so many shots are confined inside a rattling old junker of an automobile, but, to the extent Palookaville often looks static, at least it is true to the spirit of the film. Taylor doesn't let the visual design tell the story, like the recent Heavy did; he lets the story define the visual design. (The best running gag is Russell's brother-in-law, an arrogant jerk who walks around the house in his T-shirt and shoulder holster as if he were still playing cowboys and Indians with his playmates.)

The small miracle of the film is that it manages to sustain your interest even though it unfolds carelessly and without much hope for a final payoff. The heroes' own aimlessness infects the movie, too. Because the characters are unemployed and just hang out, there's little ever really going on; there's not even a criminal subculture to explore (nor, for that matter, much observation of the criminal element; these guys are losers, and they're desperate, but they're essentially honest--and there's nothing venal about them.) This may be the film's trickiest sleight of hand: giving distinctive characteristics to a trio of likable losers who share the same rut.

Often, the litany of quirks meant to distinguish one character from another can seem like contrivances. (The most suspect example comes in giving Sid a pair of mutts to take care of. Pets--especially big, goofy dogs--are easy metaphors for loneliness and emotional isolation. Dumb animals are accepting and nonjudgmental, so they of couse are the perfect companions for men with easily bruised egos like Sid.) But ultimately Palookaville is a three-man character study, and despite the loopy pacing, the actors pull it off. Forsythe, usually a hulking, one-note actor that I've never much cared for, delivers a performance of surprising sensitivity. In previous films, he has never conveyed the sense of stillness that is Sid's most recognizable trait: Sid seems immune to the world around him and almost content in his cocoon. Sid contrasts sharply with Russell, whose intensity is borne of his awareness that his life is slipping away from him. He realizes that when you're 30ish and secretly sleeping with your next-door neighbor's teenage daughter--she lives across the alley and performs peep shows for him--something has to change. The emotional center of the film, though, is Jerry. Trese's glum, sweet-tempered performance taps into Jerry's well-intentioned ambivalence and reminds the audience how ordinary these men are, and how sad their inability to achieve their dreams really is.

Desperation earmarks Ransom, too, but it's not the kind bred of a hard life. Instead, it's the interruption of the protagonists' success and happiness that forces them to confront exactly how far they are willing to go to restore order to their lives. Richard Price--who co-wrote the Ransom screenplay and also wrote The Color of Money, Sea of Love, and other films--frequently wrestles with ideas of morality in a complex world, and his influence is apparent from how unclean the hero, Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson), really is. Mullen is an airline executive under investigation for bribery when his son is kidnapped and held for a $2-million ransom. He suspects that the investigation and kidnapping are related--that the man serving time in jail for the crime Mullen is accused of is seeking revenge. The ethical ambiguity arises because, as it turns out, Mullen did commit the bribery, and his conscience has gotten the better of him.

Ransom falters by ultimately trivializing the deeper significance of virtually every plot point as they occur, and opts instead for shopworn cliches. Even when Mullen confesses his sins to an FBI agent (Delroy Lindo), there's no kick to it, because the scene--like many others--feels composed for a movie audience, not for the characters themselves. Does there always have to be a softhearted bad guy (you can always spot him; he's destined to be killed) merely to bring the comparison to the remorseless sociopath (Gary Sinise) into sharper relief? An awful lot of raw material is available for putting together a savvy, nail-biting detective thriller, but this movie squanders that opportunity and instead becomes passive and talky. Why does the FBI never do any forensic work, but instead opt just to stand around debating whether the ransom should be paid? The answer is obvious and unjustified: Making the FBI agents the heroes would effectively emasculate Gibson's part, and, dammit, you don't do that to a star!

The decision to craft Ransom as a vehicle built around a movie star rather than as a sensible, tightly composed thriller is directly attributable to the director, Ron Howard. Howard is a product of the Hollywood community--the perfect child star, grown into the consummate studio director. His films are accessible and audience-friendly, and seem less like they were actually filmed than extruded, fully formed, from immense rolls of celluloid. He doesn't make idiosyncratic, offbeat pictures--the film equivalent of dime-novel pulp fiction--but glossy, polished movies. The likes of Backdraft, Far and Away, and Willow have a look of weightiness to them, even though on closer inspection they are undeniably featherlight. (The exception that proves the rule: Apollo 13, a beautifully constructed and very smart entertainment.)

Gibson does a very serviceable job--he allows himself to show strength and emotional compassion--but he's hampered by Howard's insistence on leading viewers around on a short leash as if we couldn't be trusted to think for ourselves. Every time the plot gets rolling, Howard interrupts the flow by using some cheap, counterintuitive device to resolve the scene, even when a much better answer stares him right in the face. Attempts at moral complexity aside, he expects you to know whose side to be on at all times.

The first hour of Ransom is mostly routine melodrama; only later, when Mullen turns the tables on the kidnappers--offering the ransom money as a reward--does the film begin to get really interesting. Finally it seems it will, like Seven and In the Line of Fire, tap into a source for how it can turn the victim's relationship with the criminal into a complete mindfuck. By that late point, however, Howard has already projected his own confusion about what the film's point is and how to get there, and Ransom becomes scattershot. Eventually the desperation you remember isn't the characters' anxiety about their missing child, it's the film's own panic attack concerning whether the audience will walk away satisfied. Ransom commits the worst crime a movie can: It panders.

Ransom. Touchstone Pictures. Mel Gibson, Gary Sinise, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo, Lili Taylor. Written by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon, from a story by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum. Directed by Ron Howard. Now playing.

Palookaville. The Samuel Goldwyn Company. William Forsythe, Adam Trese, Vincent Gallo, Frances McDormand, Gareth Williams. Written by David Epstein. Directed by Alan Taylor. Opens November 15.

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