"Break a Leg" is a Hollywood insider comedy more charming and funny than most. In fact, it's so inside it may play best to an industry crowd. But if pic's audience award win at Cinevegas is any indication, the movie isn't too insular for a general crowd. More fest invites will be forthcoming and theatrical distribs ought have a look, too.

The kind of film that’s hard to pull off without seeming terminally bitter and/or self-involved, “Break a Leg” is a Hollywood insider comedy more charming and funny than most. In fact, it’s so inside it may play best to an industry crowd. But if pic’s audience award win at Cinevegas is any indication, the movie isn’t too insular for a general crowd. Despite the passe subject matter and lack of marquee names, more fest invites will be forthcoming and theatrical distribs ought have a look, too.

John Cassini, who co-wrote (with brother Frank), co-produced and stars, is a runt of an actor who looks like he only gets offered parts that Joe Pesci has turned down. Like Max Matteo, the down-on-his-luck bit-part player Cassini portrays, Cassini himself is about the last guy Hollywood would ever give a leading role in a high-profile picture. In the way of Nia Vardalos and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (or Sylvester Stallone and “Rocky” a generation before), Cassini had to make “Break a Leg” happen from scratch, and as a result his performance is imbued with a special resonance and sense of theatrical showmanship, like one given by the ever-hopeful understudy who finally gets to go on for the lead.

Pic opens with Max auditioning for a bad “Rain Man” retread. The producers ignore him, talking on cell phones as he performs. It’s but the first of several dehumanizing auditions Max will go through over the course of the film. Max lives in a dreary apartment — it has a rotary phone — that shows this has been his way of life for a good long while. It all rings so true that when Max takes out a can of cat food to feed his pet, viewers half expect him to eat it himself; and when Max’s actress friend Juliet (the lovely Jennifer Beals) asks him how much of his life he plans to spend “in acting classes, barking like a dog,” it seems Max must be asking himself the very same thing.

Max continues to give it his all. But even for Max, who knows he’s a good actor and wants the rest of the world to know too, starry-eyed optimism has its limits. When Juliet literally breaks her leg the night before she was to start a plum role, it gives Max an idea: If only he were to help out a bit, causing “accidents” for the competing actors, he might finally be able to get somewhere. And so, “Break a Leg” reveals its dark side, becoming a blood-and-sinew-shaded satire of slaying your way up the corporate ladder.

Of course, Max’s misbehavior works in his favor. Suddenly, he isn’t just getting good parts, but decent tables in good restaurants and introductions to beautiful actress-models like Kate (freckle-faced Molly Parker, looking particularly radiant). He’s been transformed from shlub to stud, a bit like Paul Rudd’s character in “The Shape of Things,” except that Max’s mellifluous muse is no ordinary femme fatale — it’s fame herself.

The Cassinis’ very clever script is born from a first-hand insight (they’re both actors), and it’s seasoned with some particularly sharp, Zucker Brothers-style verbal-visual gags (like a literal “pissing contest” between two producers, undertaken to determine which of two potential actors is awarded a given role).

The first-time director, Monika Mitchell (who’s engaged to John Cassini), has a peppy visual style and a fine sense of comic timing. But neither Mitchell nor the writers appear to know where to take the story in the end; by having Max kill (albeit unintentionally) his first “accident” victim, they box themselves in too early on. So, by the unexpectedly grisly ending, “Break a Leg” has nowhere left to go and Max is forced into some situations that feel over-the-top even by this movie’s standards.

Shot, despite its small budget, in crisp 35mm by the cinematographer Eric J. Goldstein, the movie sports a modest but ample, professional look and makes fine use of its recognizable L.A. locations.

Break a Leg

Production

A Catchlight Films presentation. Produced by Jeanette Volturno, Trey Wilkins. Executive producer, Charles Lee. Co-producers, John Cassini, Ric Wolfe. Directed by Monika Mitchell. Screenplay, Frank Cassini, John Cassini.

Crew

Camera (CFI color), Eric J. Goldstein; editors, Donald J. Paonessa, Lawrence Maddox; music, Roger Bellon; production designer, Renee Davenport; costume designers, Lisa Parmet, Angela Nunez; sound (Dolby), Marcus Ricaud; assistant director, Scott Forrest; casting, Susan Peck. Reviewed at Cinevegas Film Festival, Las Vegas, June 16, 2003. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Max Matteo - John Cassini Det. Frank Sanchez - Rene Rivera Kate - Molly Parker Juliet - Jennifer Beals J.D. - Kevin Corrigan Tony Felice - Frank Cassini Young Turk - Sandra Oh Det. John Coyle - J.J. Johnston Michael Richard Lange - Eric Roberts E.J. Inglewood - Danny Nucci Ira Goldstein - Barry Primus

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