The dark motives and dense plotting of classic crime fiction are present in “The Bitter End,” but not something just as important: compelling characters. Like many neo-noirs, this one relies on genre formulas and a moody look while seriously neglecting emotional hooks. Overlong, blahly directed and sometimes murky in the telling, pic is no step up for star Denis Leary, whose career could use more engaging, three-
dimensional roles than found here. Vidcassette and some offshore action represent the best chances for the suspenser, which was known as “Love Walked In” till moments before its Sundance unveiling.
Set in a vague, off-season version of New York’s Hamptons beach resort, tale commences with lounge pianist Jack (Leary) and his torch singer g.f., Vicky (Aitana Sanchez Gijon), almost getting the boot from their latest gig thanks to Jack’s acidic stage patter. Rescue comes courtesy of an ultra-rich patron, Fred Moore (Terence Stamp), who says he likes the couple’s act and clearly likes Vicky’s sultry charms.
Soon after, Jack gets a visit from an old pal now working as a private eye, Eddie (Michael Badalucco), who lets drop that Fred’s wealth all belongs to his wife, who’s jealous and obsessed with finding proof of infidelities that don’t, in fact, exist. The information leads to a plot aimed at elevating Jack and Vicky from their dead-end stint on the road: Vicky will seduce Fred, Jack and Eddie will collect the proof, and the three conspirators will share a fortune in blackmail.
As usual, though, the best-laid plans run smack into messy reality. Fred doesn’t prove to be an easy seduction. For her part, Vicky appears in danger of getting emotionally involved with her prey. And Eddie turns into a loose cannon by trying to play both blackmail angles, risking the entire scheme in the process.
Plot’s most unfortunate layer, meanwhile, is a parallel story that belongs to a novel that Jack (a most unlikely novelist) is supposedly writing. It’s set circa the 1930s and concerns a young guy whose first love is ruined by his psycho cousin. While these roles are successfully essayed by thesps Neal Huff, Moira Kelly and Danny Nucci, the “fictional” tale itself creaks of literary contrivance and drains momentum from pic’s main story, which is already hampered by a lack of dramatic edge and tautness.
Pic’s greatest lack, though, is the absence of any reason to care about its central figures. Jack, especially, is a dull cipher, aptly if a little cruelly described by another character as a “pathetic drunken loser.” Leary coasts through the role without adding much to its uninflected emptiness. Like Stamp in his thankless turn as the rich mark, “Walk in the Clouds” star Sanchez Gijon, who here resembles Isabella Rossellini, puts in the requisite effort, but can’t do much with the thin genre cliches of her character.
There are, however, some nice acting moments in the supporting work of Badalucco, as the hapless Eddie, and Gene Canfield, who balances menace and warmth as a nightclub heavy.
Helmer Juan Jose Campanella, a transplanted Argentine making his American feature debut, exhibits more respect for noir tradition than any sense of how to bring it to contemporary life. Pic is superficially polished but sluggishly paced and labored in its overall execution. Tech credits, though, are generally sharp, with Daniel Shulman’s solid lensing proving a notable plus.