The perennially insecure world of two-bit character actors is humorously and knowingly explored in "With Friends Like These ... ." The pic has a great premise: Four small-timers, all close friends, are up for the same important part in Martin Scorsese's next gangland picture.

The perennially insecure world of two-bit character actors is humorously and knowingly explored in “With Friends Like These … .” Blessed with a great premise — four small-timers, all close friends, are up for the same important part in Martin Scorsese’s next gangland picture — Philip Messina’s genial film generates some nice laughs as well as an involving sympathy for the characters, even if it verges on hokiness rather more than it should. Viewers will have no trouble warming up to the likable lugs here (pic copped the audience award at the Santa Barbara fest), suggesting some commercial potential if an indie distrib got solidly behind it.

The four middle-aged guys at the center of the action are all-purpose “ethnic” second bananas, serious actors who idolize De Niro, Pacino and Hoffman but make a living playing “goombah hit men” on “NYPD Blue.” Although comfortably enough off in suburban L.A., they would still cut off a pinky to be the next Joe Pesci, an authentic street type who managed to break through to the big time.

It follows that, for these would-be wiseguys, Scorsese is next to God — “Nobody does street guys like him,” one points out. So when one of them, Johnny De Martino (Robert Costanzo), a fat, bald, over-excitable fellow, is privately approached about playing Al Capone in the director’s next feature (De Niro has already played the part, and Marty wants an unknown), he practically faints before beginning to panic.

Unfortunately, Johnny can’t contain himself and confides his good news to Dorian (Jon Tenney), the self-styled ladies’ man of the group, who instantly starts trying to engineer an audition for himself. Then, in order to nail down the “real” Sicilian side of the character, Johnny solicits some coaching from Armand (David Strathairn), whose mysterious background and self-sufficient means lead everyone in his circle to suspect that he’s from an actual mob family; Armand’s lesson in how to achieve the “dead eyes” of a true killer is a mini-classic.

Then there’s Steve (Adam Arkin), the Jewish member of the group, who also becomes obsessed with securing an audience with Scorsese even though his wife (Laura San Giacomo) insists there is no way he’ll ever get the part.

From the outset, it is clear that writer-director Philip Messina has an easy familiarity with the milieu — a middle-class L.A. of backyard barbecues populated by former New Yorkers enjoying, by most standards, a very nice life. But it’s a life underlined by constant insecurity, lack of artistic fulfillment and sometimes insane jealousy; as if the competition from his friends were not enough, Johnny dreads the idea that his virtual look-alike, the aggressive Rudy Ptak (Jon Polito), who Johnny feels gets most of “his” parts anyway, will somehow find out that Marty’s in town and will snare the Capone role. (When the two bump into each other on a golf course, one comments, “We look like two bouncers at a teamsters convention.”)

All the showbiz details are wonderfully handled — the gossip, hearsay and commotion over new films and roles, the dealings with agents, the backstabbing that seems like an automatic reflex even when friends are involved. Somewhat less plausibly, the three married actors of the group have wives who are endlessly indulgent of their husbands’ quirks and foibles; more implausibly, Dorian cheats on his wife even though she’s the best-looking woman around (and is played by Elle Macpherson).

Pic has some momentary lulls and suffers from comedic plotting contrivances that push it closer to a cute sort of farce than to a serious contemplation of what it means to be an actor in a highly commercialized profession; only in the climactic scene, in which one of the thesps pulls off a brazen stunt at the audition, does the mood turn genuinely dark for a time. But these factors are outweighed by a generosity of spirit that fully embraces the often misguided characters, and by the work of the gifted actors themselves.

Costanzo, who was, in fact, a regular on “NYPD Blue,” reps the physical and emotional center of the picture, and creates an energetic, highly sympathetic characterization. When he performs his audition speech in full “Big Al” get-up, he’s chillingly good. As men led astray by their own forms of self-delusional fantasies, Tenney and Arkin are fine, while Strathairn, not normally associated with the sort of hood roles in question here, reveals hitherto unseen aspects of his imposing repertoire.

Thesping across the board is lively, with Bill Murray contributing an early cameo as a stingy producer and, best of all, Scorsese appearing — indelibly — as himself at the audition. Production values are sharp.

With Friends Like These ...

Production

A Robert Greenhut/Parkway/Quadrant production. Produced by Greenhut, Amy Lemisch. Executive producers, E.K. Gaylord II, Jon Ein, Marty Feinberg. Co-producers, Andrea Asimow, Mark Lonow, Joanne Astrow, Diane F. Krausz. Directed, written by Philip Messina

With

Steve Hersh - Adam Arkin Johnny DiMartino - Robert Costanzo Theresa Carpenter - Beverly D'Angelo Samantha Mastandrea - Elle Macpherson Hannah DiMartino - Amy Madigan Joanne Hersh - Laura San Giacomo Armand Minetti - David Strathairn Dorian Mastandrea - Jon Tenney Yolanda Chin - Lauren Tom Nino DiMartino - Carmine Costanzo Head Mob Guy - Tom La Grua Frank Minetti - Garry Marshall Dr. Maxwell Hersh - Michael McKean Marissa DiMartino - Ashley Peldon Rudy Ptak - Jon Polito Dr. Puccini - Armando Pucci Trent Rabinowitz - Andrew Schaifer Babette - Heather Stephens Maurice Melnick - Bill Murray Scorsese - Martin Scorsese
Camera (Deluxe color), Brian J. Reynolds; editor, Claudia Finkle; music producer, Hans Zimmer; composer, John Powell; production designer, Beth DeSort; set decorator, Joanna Venezky; costume designers, Mary Kay Stolz, Joanna Bendel; sound (Dolby), Albee Gordon; assistant director, Jan Sebastian Ballhaus; casting, Rachel Abroms. Reviewed at Harmony Gold screening room, L.A., Feb. 18, 1998. (In Santa Barbara Film Festival.) Running time: 105 MIN.

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