Hope doesn't spring eternal: It flickers like an old streetlamp or porch light. That's the bittersweet message of this beguiling, humane farce about three Jersey City buddies who spiral ever-deeper down on their luck while planning to heist an armored car. Sid (William Forsythe), Jerry (Adam Trese), and Russ (Vincent Gallo) couldn't be mistaken for wise guys. They're neighborhood ne'er-do-wells, and life has stopped them dead in their tracks. Sid, a sometime auto painter, lives alone (except for two smelly dogs), licking his wounds from an amorous breakup; Jerry futilely asks around for carpentry gigs to support his grocery-clerk wife and their baby boy; Russ concocts one madcap scheme after another as he vaults from the bedroom of the girl across the alley back to the home of his mother, his sister, and his derisive cop brother-in-law. To borrow one of Sid's own wisecracks, this trio is "self-unemployed." They want to strike it rich without hurting anyone or becoming public enemies. As Russ says, "I'm not talking about a life of crime; I'm talking about a momentary shift in lifestyle, a little itty-bitty alteration."
This unpretentious and exquisite movie offers a momentary stay against confusion: respite from the garish self-congratulation and harsh topicality of today's big- and little-screen hot comedies. In his first feature, the director, Alan Taylor (he's filmed episodes of TV's Homicide), dares to distance his story from the contemporary hurly-burly and to keep his people in clear sight. When Jerry's wife's boss forces himself on her, it's not a miniessay on sexual harassment, it's a test of marriage. Without quaintness or condescension, the screenwriter, David Epstein, imagines his way into cramped lives. The film's title comes from Brando's famous statement in On the Waterfront that taking a dive landed him "a one-way ticket to Palookaville." Epstein's street guys voice tragicomic variations on Brando's complaint. Part of what makes them funny is a stylized, emphatic manner of speech that's never overly tricky. Russ goes on a verbal rampage against doing work that's "serveel"; Jerry corrects him into saying "servile"; however they pronounce it, it's the right word for a situation that "sucks."
Despite the movie's gentleness, whimsy, and fablelike structure, Palookaville feels more authentic than the Mean Streets knockoffs that keep pouring into festivals and art theaters. At one point, Sid explains that operating a car service for the elderly at the grocery store could provide the pals a "niche" business. He consciously echoes the language of financial news: He's using the tools at his command to make a shaky existence come off solid. The cast and the filmmakers work within a tight narrative and emotional logic that's disappearing from American movies -- and, rather than constrict them, it enables them to take their antiheroes (and their filmmaking textures) to the limit.
If buddy movies can get annoying when they match up opposite types for obvious gags, this genuine riff on male friendship shows how these men complement each other even when they drive each other nuts. Gallo's itchy, frustrated Russ is the trio's creative/destructive spark and its leather-jacket dandy (he wraps a scarf under his chin like an ascot). With a pugnacious jaw and eyes fixed at semipop, he's a nonstop scrapper, the first to be tempted into deviltry and the one who gets the wildest inspirations, like the armored-car stickup. Gallo puts such zest into Russ' arguments that you can't wait for him to spout off. Forsythe's square-cut Sid goes in more for semilegal notions, such as that unlicensed car service for seniors, and likes to pose as the steady planner, diagramming capers on graph paper. Forsythe (Al Capone on TV's revamp of The Untouchables) underplays with gusto. He's rarely seemed more spontaneous as a performer than he is here, especially during his canine frolics. (There's a wonderful shot of one big mutt struggling to climb into bed with him; the film's most rending moment comes when Sid must protect himself from an attack dog.) Trese's Jerry is Mr. In-Between, a decent guy who thinks they should can the whole "thief" bit and concentrate "on ideas," though he's usually so pleased with the basic pleasures of life that ideas could upset his equilibrium. Trese enacts boyish distractedness estimably, without becoming defanged or sexless. Each fella is a character, not a type. Trese's benign Jerry can erupt over his wife's boss' wandering hands, just as Forsythe's Sid breaks out in silliness in a secondhand fur shop, or Gallo's hot-wired Russ gets cold feet when confronted with the existential challenge of a contemporary girl-next-door.
Frances McDormand as an amiable prostitute (her best performance this year, despite her accolades for Lone Star and Fargo) sounds one of the movie's keynotes when she says, "Boys don't always grow up. They age, they put on weight, lose sap, lose hair, grow bumps, grow warts, have regrets, lose their tempers, and they blame women." Russ keeps his girlfriend a secret and lets her down once too often, apparently paralyzed by the gap between his disordered life and her youthful confidence. The other guys are luckier: Sid gets a second chance at love with a hopeful romantic who works at ReMarkable, that secondhand fur shop, and Jerry's wife, Betty, sees him full and toughs things out. And the young female performers score bull's-eyes in these smartly written supporting roles. Kim Dickens is an up-to-date ingenue as the girl across the alleyway -- equally sexual and innocent -- while Bridgit Ryan offers a blooming, daffy lyricism as Sid's shopgirl, and Lisa Gay Hamilton adeptly expresses the torn emotions of a working mother with an out-of-work husband. Hamilton is black, yet Taylor and Epstein don't slam the racial issue home; the lack of black-white friction suggests the strength of the couple's bedrock love.
The movie borrows plot elements from three early Italo Calvino short stories ("Theft in a Pastry Shop," "Desire in November," and "Transit Bed," still available in English in the volume Difficult Loves) and a snatch or two from Mario Monicelli's sublime 1958 international hit Big Deal on Madonna Street. Actually, Taylor and Epstein share more with Calvino and Monicelli than anecdotes about a bake-shop burglary, a street guy finding sudden comfort in furs, a prostitute overlapping a cop and a crook, and a gang that just can't drill straight. Palookaville, like these Italian human comedies, has a catalytic and ultimately healing sense of life's proximities. This movie specializes in harrowing and delightful convergences -- right from the start, when the contiguity of a bakery and a jewelry store precipitates a criminal fiasco. (When an investigating policeman's hand reaches for a brownie, it nearly bumps into Jerry's.) For Russ, for example, only a back path separates familial entrapment and sexual bliss. Taylor seizes on the slapstick and the potential for grace in limited circumstances. There's barbed hilarity to Russ and Sid watching a 1950 B-flick called Armored Car Robbery at home with Russ' mom, sister, and "cop-in-law"; there's cozy magic to Jerry surprising his wife with pastries that tumble from his shirt. Rachel Portman's music twirls Mediterranean gaiety and melancholy, and that versatile, sensitive cinematographer John Thomas (who also shot the scabrously witty Freeway) imbues the film with an autumnal allure. Seen against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline (including the looming twin towers of the World Trade Center), the shingle and brick edifices of the Jersey City settings have a warm, seedy fragility. But this movie is no paean to cliched little people and their pathos-laden dreams. In Palookaville, small isn't beautiful. Real is beautiful.