Someplace in New Jersey, three jobless pals airily aspire to change their lifestyles with a temporary stint at robbery in “Palookaville,” a warmhearted, small-scale comedy that is hard to resist. With a nod to writer Italo Calvino and the bumbling thieves in Mario Monicelli’s classic “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” pic demonstrated its European appeal at Venice, where director Alan Taylor’s feature bow, screened in the new Fast Lane sidebar, was one of the most popular U.S. films at the fest. Its surprisingly robust reception there should be a prelude to foreign theatrical sales and could tip off possible indie sleeper status Stateside.
Film is one of the first to be produced by Lindsay Law’s Playhouse Intl. Pictures, which spun off from American Playhouse last year.
In atmosphere, pic was liberally inspired by three of Calvino’s stories, which blend well into the Jersey City locales. Recycling the characters from his play “Exact Change,” screenwriter David Epstein looks at would-be criminals whose plans are constantly going awry. Tough guy Russ (Vincent Gallo), family man Jerry (Adam Trese) and abandoned husband Sid (William Forsythe) are introduced drilling through the wall of a jewelry store, only to find they have miscaculated and broken into the bakery next door. Jerry consoles himself with donuts and pastry while Russ robs the till.
Tone of the film walks afine line between comic absurdity and the everyday battle for survival of families dangerously close to the poverty level. Jerry’s wife loses her job at the supermarket when Jerry catches her boss making moves on her; Russ escapes his hellishhome life by jumping through a neighbor’s window and into her arms, while Sid finds love in a tacky secondhand store.
All this furnishes an amusing backdrop to the gang’s halfhearted plans for a big heist; cleaning out the armored security truck that takes the supermarket cash to the bank. After literally letting the money slip through their fingers, Russ weaves an elaborate scheme, procures toy guns and shows his partners a video of the old film “Armored Car Robbery” for inspiration.
“Palookaville’s” working-class anti-heroes, determined to make the best of a crummy, no-future life, come across as real people thanks to light, true-to-life perfs by Forsythe and Trese and the focused frustration of the wilder Gallo, who at one point seems ready to tip the film into real drama. Story pulls back just in time, and pic dances into a suitably lighthearted conclusion.
Contentedly bereft of flashy technique, violence or hipness, “Palookaville” patiently draws the viewer into its lower-class Jersey perspective, where human goodness surprisingly holds its own with cynical wisecracks and grand larceny. Seeming to come out of an other age, pic has a gentle kindness to match that of its three not-so-bright losers. A modern note is the strength and independence of the female characters, on whose shoulders all three vulnerable heroes lean from time to time.
Cinematographer John Thomas captures the two souls of Jersey City, the decrepit but scenic old town and eyesore commercial development. All the other tech work, notably Rachel Portman’s score, is finely harmonious.