With a conspicuous heart on its sleeve, "The Florentine" can't break away from its verbose theatrical origins. Helmed by multifaceted industry vet Nick Stagliano, this paean to small-town American values is painfully earnest and determinedly old-fashioned in style and themes. While it's raised above the norm by a cast full of thesp heavyweights, pic is ultimately undone by a distracting spread of novelistic story strands and a deadly, repetitive series of two-character dialogue scenes. A distrib may end up going for this quaint, besotted bit of Americana, but the gabfest will be restricted to English-only markets, with betterafterlife on vid.

With a conspicuous heart on its sleeve, “The Florentine” can’t break away from its verbose theatrical origins. Helmed by multifaceted industry vet Nick Stagliano, this paean to small-town American values is painfully earnest and determinedly old-fashioned in style and themes. While it’s raised above the norm by a cast full of thesp heavyweights, pic is ultimately undone by a distracting spread of novelistic story strands and a deadly, repetitive series of two-character dialogue scenes. A distrib may end up going for this quaint, besotted bit of Americana, but the gabfest will be restricted to English-only markets, with betterafterlife on vid.

It’s a worrying sign from the start that Michael Madsen’s bar-owning Whitey delivers such a sanctimonious, on-the-nose voiceover intro. Despite the many considerable faults of customers, relatives and neighbors alike, Whitey loves ‘em all. He’s a fixture — not the best kind of role for the mercurial Madsen — around which a circle of humanity revolves.

Setting is the same Pennsylvania Rust Belt milieu as in “The Deer Hunter” (and involving similar men disappointed with life, sans the Vietnam War backdrop). The old steel town of Irish Catholic stock is far past its prime, as are the predominantly male characters. Bobbie (Chris Penn) is unhappily married to Vikki (Mary Stuart Masterson) and struggling with mounting bookie debts, inflaming the anger of small-time mobster Joe (Burt Young), who also holds the note on the Florentine bar. Whitey’s sister Molly (Virginia Madsen, real-life sis to Michael) is about to be married, but her ex-beau, a wandering loser with a name right out of Sean O’Casey — Teddy Finn (Tom Sizemore) — has come back , potentially to cause trouble.

Teddy’s best buddy, scraggly, pale-faced Truby (Jeremy Davies), counsels him to give up any hope of getting back Molly, though Truby has his own woman problems with an alluring coffee shop waitress, Claire (Maeve Quinlan). Meanwhile, Whitey’s fairly witless pal, Frankie (Luke Perry), blows the cash Whitey has saved for the wedding caterer in a con scheme involving strong, sharp-witted Billy Munucci (James Belushi). In the story’s only real movie sequence, Teddy manages to double-cross Billy and save the wedding.

By the time the cheery conclusion rolls around, there’s even the possibility that Penn’s Bobbie and Masterson’s Vikki will patch things up, which is consistent with a story utterly devoted to Catholic-style redemption and the conviction that, deep down, people are good.

The most authentic sense of life’s disappointments is expressed in a small, searing scene by Hal Holbrook as Florentine barfly Smitty, in which Stagliano’s camera slowly zooms in on Holbrook’s craggy face as he tells Whitey how he lost his wife. Yet the scenario gives even Smitty a contrived route by which to redeem himself in the end.

Script, which is based on a play by Damien Gray and Amy McCarty-Baker that was staged Off Off Broadway in the late ’80s, was made to order for thesps eager to chew into some long dialogues and monologues. It evidently fazed neither the impressive list of players, nor such backers as American Zoetrope and Francis Ford Coppola, that the characters here are the kind of stock, working-class types that were old news in American theater 40 years ago, or that the script is resolutely uncinematic.

Watching such underused master thesps as Holbrook and Young take over every scene they’re in is an undeniable treat, and Sizemore is no slouch either as he brings some flesh to the hearts and flowers. Davies makes a rare misstep here with a mannered turn, while Virginia Madsen makes good emotional use of her few screen moments and Belushi is simply an actor having a lot of fun. The blue-collar Sturm und Drang seems to wear on Penn and Masterson, though Quinlan brings some potent female energy to the guy-heavy drama.

Stagliano directed one previous feature, “Home of Angels,” and has worked on pics in numerous other capacities. Tech credits are skilled, with Stephen Kazmierski’s muted color lensing suggesting a danker future than the script indicates.

The Florentine

(DRAMA )

Production

An Initial Entertainment Group presentation of an American Zoetrope and Nazz/March First co-production. Produced by Tom Benson, Nick Stagliano, Chris Penn, Steven Weisman. Executive producers, Francis Ford Coppola, Cindy Cowan, Fred Fuchs. Directed by Nick Stagliano. Screenplay, Damien Gray, Tom Benson, based on the play by Gray, Amy McCarty-Baker.

Crew

Camera (color), Stephen Kazmierski; editor, Plummy Tucker; music, Marco Beltrami; music supervisors, Lonnie Sill, Tom Eaton; production designer, Stephen McCabe; costume designer, Kasia Maimone; line producer, A. John Rath; casting, Marcia Shulman. Reviewed at L.A. Independent Film Festival, April 19, 1999. Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Whitey ..... Michael Madsen Bobbie ..... Chris Penn Truby ..... Jeremy Davies Teddy Finn ..... Tom Sizemore Frankie ..... Luke Perry Billy Munucci ..... James Belushi Vikki ..... Mary Stuart Masterson Smitty ..... Hal Holbrook Molly ..... Virginia Madsen Claire ..... Maeve Quinlan Joe McCollough ..... Burt Young
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