Melodramas often take a bad rap in the critical press, as if there's something wrong with enjoying schmaltzy love stories or torrid, overblown gangster epics. Granted, they aren't exactly known for their original plots, but there's a reason they have staying power. After all, cliches only gain currency as cliches because their familiarity attracts a following. When mounted stylishly, even the most banal melodrama can pluck a chord or two. Film noir in particular, the single most motif-intensive movie genre every created, could hardly be more melodramatic, but when done right--usually with cynical, sexy flourishes--it can also be tremendously entertaining: the femme fatale with a hidden agenda; the chump-protagonist who, no matter how hard-boiled, always ends up thinking with his groin; the doomed love affair told against an urban backdrop of rain-drenched streets, hard angles, and deep shadows. You can almost smell the bitter, sad ending.
Film noir doesn't adjust well to the most minor fiddling with its essential components. Even deliciously wicked offerings like The Usual Suspects, The Grifters, or The Last Seduction lack the precise, classic tone of fatalism, and form their own subcategory of movies: neo-noir. The new film Caught embraces many of the trappings of a neo-noir exercise--a slowly unfolding plot, a mysterious drifter, a forbidden relationship, and assorted betrayals--but it defies the urge to exploit them simply to make something both sexy and evil. At first, its failure to deliver as expected seems slightly off-putting, but in the end the film works almost in spite of our confused expectations. Director Robert M. Young has pulled a double-crosser worthy of the best film noir: He has plumbed the emotional landscape of his characters and emerged not with a juicy film that glories in the remnants of its characters ruined lives, but one that sympathizes with them on a basic level. Caught may not be brilliant filmmaking, but it is a solid entertainment with some stylish flourishes.
Whether this switcheroo was intentional remains to be seen. Young has proven himself generally capable, but largely unspectacular, in movies like Extremities and Dominick and Eugene; his strength as a director lies in identifying with his characters and making the audience relate to them in emotionally charged situations, rather than demonstrating a firm grasp of the elements of plot. Caught seems to tell a familiar story: Joe and Betty, owners of a fish store, were probably happily married once, but the passion has long since exited their marriage; they've become accustomed to each other, but their days as lovers have passed. In walks Nick, a hobo they hire who inadvertently disrupts their lives. Although fairly predictable stuff, there's a freshness to Young's approach to the material--not the least of which is casting Latino actors in parts not written with them in mind. In the end, the film's minor weaknesses become obscured by the surprising, quiet dignity brought to it by its three principal actors: Maria Conchita Alonso, Arie Verveen, and Edward James Olmos.
For Alonso especially, Caught represents a significant departure. After years of usually being cast as a chica--roles that were nothing but fiery window dressing--she gives a performance of surprising maturity and depth. Alonso brings a sad, earthy elegance to her role, the kind Patti LuPone projects on stage. The incestuous subtext that gives Caught its kinky kick depends largely on Alonso's ability to make Betty sensual and innocent. In one of the most interesting scenes in the movie, done totally without dialogue, Betty by turns dances with her husband, her lover, and her son (Steven Schub). She's the fourth side of a perverse love rectangle, and the forbidden nature of these relationships imbues this scene and all that follow with a creepy, nervous energy. The centeredness of Alonso prevents it from becoming merely exploitative, especially once she begins to betray her husband in her son's bedroom--preserved, not coincidentally, by the son, Danny, as a shrine to himself.
Verveen makes an impressive debut, projecting the same brooding Celtic good looks as Jason Patric. (That fact only highlights Caught's similarity to a more traditional neo-noir movie, After Dark, My Sweet.) Nick's breathless, hushed narration, spoken as he is paralyzed by ambivalence, conveys a numbed pain and guileless charm that add depth to his character. Verveen has the difficult job of making Nick a passive hero--a reluctant yet passionate lover--and he brings it off winningly. Olmos, a reliable actor who works with Young regularly, takes a back seat to Alonso and Verveen, but he makes Joe more complex than a run-of-the-mill cuckold.
What Caught does best is what melodramas do best, and why they are so durable: It shows characters dealing with everyday emotions in dramatic and satisfying ways. What it lacks in style, it more than makes up for in heart.
Caught. Sony Pictures Classics. Maria Conchita Alonso, Edward James Olmos, Arie Verveen. Written by Edward Pomerantz, from his novel, Into It. Directed by Robert M. Young. Now playing.
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