Michael Almereyda’s regular producer, Amy Hobby and frequent leading man, Karl Geary reinvent themselves as, respectively, director and screenwriter with featherweight romance “Coney Island Baby.” Built upon cliches — small-town guy returns home to find his longtime girlfriend pregnant and engaged to marry another fella — it’s surprisingly charming. Shot quickly on digital video with minimal crew, film is a fine showcase for its ensemble cast (led by Geary). Though the market is never short on enjoyable romantic fluff, thoughtful “Coney Island Baby” deserves a look from specialty distribs who know how to build word-of-mouth.
Pic’s title refers to a tiny hamlet in Sligo, Ireland, where ne’er-do-well Billy Hayes (Geary) returns from New York. Before Billy left, he served some local jail time, and no one has much heard from him since he left. But this new Billy claims to be a reformed man, armed with a can’t-miss scheme for whisking his grease-monkey girlfriend, Bridget (fine Scottish actress Laura Fraser), back to America, where he’s found a roadside gas station they can run. But Bridget is about to walk down the aisle with someone else, and neither she nor her protective family are keen on seeing Billy back in Coney Island.
Geary’s script has some wonderfully low-key comic ideas: Billy impulsively buys a ramshackle delivery truck that once belonged to a potato company called “Tayto,” while Billy’s father (delightful character actor, Tom Hickey) sells bathroom cleaning supplies door-to-door. And Hobby does a fine job of realizing these ideas with the appropriate visual kick: There’s a terrific scene late in the film in which some of dad’s toilet cleaners are cleverly repackaged as children’s toys.
This is a movie about a guy trying to win back his girlfriend and his parents’ respect, while steering clear of the small-time gangsters who threaten to pull him back into a wayward lifestyle. Most refreshing is that Geary and Hobby avoid big, melodramatic confrontation scenes.Hobby does well by the movie’s set pieces, too; an airport-set deal that goes down near pic’s end is almost as deftly executed as the train station climax in James Foley’s “Confidence.” But it’s the actors who make the film. Geary, who has a small gap in his right eyebrow, has written a role for himself that plays off of his roguish charisma. And Fraser turns what might have been a standard girlfriend role into something much richer and more complex informed as much by Bridget’s diminished expectations as the indignity over Billy having left her high and dry.
Shooting mostly outdoors, with little artificial light and the temperamental Irish climate to contend with, master cinematographer Peter Deming (“From Hell,” “Mulholland Dr.”) delivers images with a pastel shimmer and some lovely time-lapse effects.