Review: ‘Frogs for Snakes’

Billing itself as "a neo-noir comic thriller," indie maverick Amos Poe's latest exercise is more like "Putz Fiction" mainlining David Mamet. Stuffed with iconic casting, and self-consciously smart to a fault, "Frogs for Snakes" will turn off as many as it ultimately seduces, though for those who stay the course the pic does come together in its final reels.

Billing itself as “a neo-noir comic thriller,” indie maverick Amos Poe’s latest exercise is more like “Putz Fiction” mainlining David Mamet. Stuffed with iconic casting, and self-consciously smart to a fault, “Frogs for Snakes” will turn off as many as it ultimately seduces, though for those who stay the course the pic does come together in its final reels. Fests are likely to bite at this jokey, actor-led jeu, but expect a tough sell in commercial theaters — partly because, through no fault of his own, Poe’s originally distinctive style has since been appropriated by more mainstream moviemakers. Trimming by some 15 minutes would also help.

Picture plunges straight in as it means to continue with a blackly comic pre-credits sequence of a broad in a blond wig busting into the apartment of a lowlife in the middle of a drugs ‘n’ bondage session. Selfsame broad turns out to be Eva (Barbara Hershey), a struggling legit actress, who does collecting jobs on the side for her ex-husband, loan shark Al (Robbie Coltrane). During the day, she waitresses at a Lower Manhattan diner owned by Quint (Ian Hart).

Also in Eva’s demimonde is new boyfriend Zip (John Leguizamo), wannabe actress Myrna (Lisa Marie), Al’s blond-trash g.f., Simone (Debi Mazar), hood-poseur Gascone (Ron Perlman) and Al’s driver-cum-hit-man, U.B. (David Deblinger). Eva tells Al that she wants to get out of collecting and acting, and live in a house with a picket fence with her young son, Augie (Zak Kerkoulas). He asks her to do one more, highly paid job, finding a missing $600,000 stolen from him by Flav (Justin Theroux).

That sets off a highly convoluted, noirish yarn in which most of the cast end up double-crossing and shooting one another. A subplot, which becomes inextricably intertwined with the main one, is Al’s desire to turn theater impresario by staging a production of Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” Unknown to Eva, Al has offered the role of Teach to U.B., on the condition he kill Zip; things get really nasty, however, when Eva tells Al that it was U.B. and another wannabe-actor hood, Klensch (Harry Hamlin), who did the dirty deed. Meanwhile, Eva teams up with Myrna to find Zip’s killer and their kidnapped children. Confused?

Most of this, including who is actually who — becomes clear very slowly: Even the main titles appear almost 20 minutes in. Poe’s main game is to throw together a loose collection of deadbeats and genre stereotypes, and blur the line between the roles they’re self-consciously playing in the pic and their aspirations as actors to play similar roles onstage.

The running joke of characters suddenly playing classic movie scenes (often badly, as in Myrna’s case with “The Hustler”) will test auds’ knowledge as well as their patience; some, as in Klensch’s death scene, are genuinely funny, especially in Hamlin’s self-mocking performance; others simply hold up the movie, especially when the scene being played is not immediately clear to the viewer. (The German-subtitled print shown at Berlin helped by italicizing the speeches.)

If you can get past all the postmodern noir elements and casual bursts of violence, there’s a germ of a nice idea here — an underworld milieu populated by people who knew each other in acting class, and who would literally kill to get a good role. In its final reels, climaxing in a barroom bloodbath followed by a liberating finale, the movie takes some sort of emotional shape, after labyrinthine plotting in its midsection that’s really an excuse for lack of character development.

Poe is certainly well served by his cast, who throw themselves into their roles even when they are often joshing their own screen images. Scottish thesp Coltrane, sporting an impressive American accent, has the right physical presence as Al and the authority to go with it; his scenes with Hershey, also fine, are among the best in the movie, played for dark laughs but also genuine feeling. Hamlin (in for only one scene, late on), Perlman and Clarence Williams III all have fun with their lowlife characters, and Mazar is sharp as the gold-digging Simone. Lisa Marie and Hart have relatively small roles.

Production values are superior indie, with Enrique Chediak’s photography richly colored and Candice Donnelly’s costumes heightening the exaggerated atmosphere. Though soundtrack shows some care in sound design, some of the dialogue is less than clear. Viewers are also recommended to stay seated until the very end of the final crawl: This is one movie that simply doesn’t want to quit.

Frogs for Snakes

(Comedy-Thriller)

Production

A Shooting Gallery presentation, in association with Rain Film. (International sales: The Shooting Gallery Intl., Beverly Hills, Calif.) Produced by Phyllis Freed Kaufman. Executive producers, Larry Meistrich, Daniel J. Victor. Co-producer, Jonathan Starch. Directed, written by Amos Poe.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Enrique Chediak; editor , Jeff Kushner; music, Lazy Boy; musical supervision, Barry Cole; production designer, Michael Shaw; costume designer, Candice Donnelly; sound design (Dolby Digital), Kushner; sound, William Kozy; associate producers, Keith Abell, Ara Cohen; assistant director, Jolyon Handler; casting, Lina Todd. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 20, 1998. Running time: 115 MIN.

With

Eva - Barbara Hershey Al Santana - Robbie Coltrane Klensch - Harry Hamlin Quint - Ian Hart Zip - John Leguizamo Myrna - Lisa Marie Simone - Debi Mazar Gascone - Ron Perlman Huck - Clarence Williams III Augie - Zak Kerkoulas Oskie - Sabrina Passuntino Flav - Justin Theroux U.B - David Deblinger Iggy - Nick Chinlund Crunch - Mike Starr Doctor - Taylor Mead
Camera (Deluxe color), Enrique Chediak; editor, Jeff Kushner; music, Lazy Boy; musical supervision, Barry Cole; production designer, Michael Shaw; costume designer, Candice Donnelly; sound design (Dolby Digital), Kushner; sound, William Kozy; associate producers, Keith Abell, Ara Cohen; assistant director, Jolyon Handler; casting, Lina Todd. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 20, 1998. Running time: 115 MIN.
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