A brilliant start and pitch-perfect dialogue are deflated by a half-baked story in this dark comedy about a shrink who becomes unwrapped, with deadly results. "Trouble on the Corner's" premise and initial chemistry are enough to justify amiable cable play, and perhaps even a video cult following down the line.

A brilliant start and pitch-perfect dialogue are deflated by a half-baked story in this dark comedy about a shrink who becomes unwrapped, with deadly results — for his neighbors, and for the audience. “Trouble on the Corner’s” premise and initial chemistry are enough to justify amiable cable play, and perhaps even a video cult following down the line. Fuzzy plotting and a silly finish, however, may keep “Trouble” out of theatrical corners.

The first hour or so of this Amerindie item has so many sharp lines and wonderfully oddball situations, auds will hardly believe their luck — and they’ll do well to remain skeptical. Tony Goldwyn toplines as Jeff Stewart, a meek New York City psychologist who lives on fees from the criminals sent to him by the state, as well as people who happen to live in his Harlem building.

His clients are openly contemptuous of him: “Hollow words from a hollow man,” says one tenant (Giancarlo Esposito), coping with a lover dying from AIDS. Another patient is a repeat sex offender (Bruce MacVitie) whom Jeff wishes would just get hit by a truck. Then there’s his wife, Vivian (Edie Falco), an all-business nurse who’s politely cold to him at the best of times.

Basically, Jeff’s the lamest therapist since Bob Newhart, but Bob never showed this much sexual tension. Perhaps that’s because he never had Debi Mazar as a highly charged upstairs neighbor. Another nabe, a chain-smoking religious nut (Tammy Grimes), thinks he’s up to no good, and pretty soon, he is. It’s when the dithering doc, goaded from all directions, finally decides to act for a change that things start to happen. Unfortunately, it’s also when the pic starts to fall apart; by the time Jeff is up on the roof, yelling platitudes about the uncaring city, viewers will be wondering if that first hour was as sweet as they thought.

It was. First-time scripter-helmer Alan Madison has a terrific ear for the peculiarities of individual speech. The personal tics and foibles of everyone from the building’s chess-playing Holocaust survivor (Mark Margolis) to the resident fortunetelling drag queen (Charles Busch) and a fussy English ambulance chaser (Roger Rees) are wonderfully realized, and their differences set off sparks every time paths are crossed. Mazar turns in a sexy, knowing performance as the hand model who’ll take off everything but her gloves, and Falco is hilariously hissable as the unloving wife.

Goldwyn, who has the nebbishy part of his role down pat, needs to take a break from the “Kiss the Girls” psycho ward. Once his character begins bumping people off, his actions — and subsequent speechifying — are hard to comprehend. All in all, it’s as if Madison had a really cool idea to start with (and a great hand with just the right cast) but no carefully reasoned plan as to how to wind things down.

Still, pic has a great, gritty look, and it’s helped by deft editing and an offbeat score (from Meredith Monk cohort Robert Een).

Trouble on the Corner

Production

A Trouble on the Corner LLC (New York) production. Produced by Alan Madison, Diane Kolyer. Executive producers, Henry Eisenberg, Glenn Krevlin, Lee Schalop, Dan Stern. Directed, written by Alan Madison.

Crew

Camera (color), Phil Abraham; editor, Ray Hubley; music, Robert Een; production design, Sherri Adler; art direction, Maya Wildberger, set decoration, Allyn Howard; costumes, Todd Thomas; sound, Marshall Grupp; assistant director, Jolyon Handler; casting, Julie Madison. Reviewed at Vancouver Film Festival, Oct. 2, 1997. Running time: 114 MIN.

With

Jeff - Tony Goldwyn Vivian - Edie Falco Ericca Ricce - Debi Mazar Detective Bill - Joe Morton Mrs. K - Tammy Grimes Daryl - Giancarlo Esposito McMurtry - Roger Rees
With: Charles Busch, Bruce MacVitie, Mark Margolis, Anna Thomson, Daniel Von Barge, Phyllis Somerville.
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