Film Reviews

Crime doesn't pay

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.