Review: ‘Men Without Jobs’

Surprisingly assured, breezy character comedy posits two black "Men Without Jobs" who, as conceived by scripter/helmer Mad Matthewz, constantly short-circuit stereotypes. They are as apt to play a game of chess after enjoying a home-cooked gourmet meal as they are to watch cartoons sprawled on a couch while wolfing down cereal.

Surprisingly assured, breezy character comedy posits two black “Men Without Jobs” who, as conceived by scripter/helmer Mad Matthewz, constantly short-circuit stereotypes. They are as apt to play a game of chess after enjoying a home-cooked gourmet meal as they are to watch cartoons sprawled on a couch while wolfing down cereal. Affable, dedicated slackers who are sliding into their 30s on indefinitely deferred dreams, these complementary roomies trade quips, concerns and catchy names for their as yet-unmaterialized band. Well-crafted script, easy-flowing dialogue and winning cast (not to mention sharp image quality) should spell indie distrib interest for Matthewz’s felicitous bow.

Matthewz effortlessly develops his protagonists’ backstories throughout the course of the film. Ish (Ishmael Butler) comes from a middle-class, educated family (he regularly “shops” at their brownstone when his parents are not home, borrowing his father’s vinyl oldies along with his mother’s food). He dropped out of Columbia U. to escape his father’s deadingly high expectations.

The demons that beset Oz (Bonz Malone) are less upscale. He is struggling with an addiction to gambling and obsessed with seeing his young daughter again, regularly dropping by his mother-in-law’s house for news of her, carrying offerings of warm strudel (preparing haute cuisine relaxes him).

The duo nest in the spacious Brooklyn apartment that Oz has inherited from his grandmother (along with her pet parakeet), and one has the feeling that nothing much has altered in their leisurely lifestyles for a very long time. They hang with friends and generally manage to stay just one step ahead of eviction notices.

Then one day Ish meets Veronica (Anita Kopacz), a spray-paint muralist, and things change. Not, as one might expect, because Veronica comes between the two buddies. On the contrary, she gets along like a house afire with Oz. Veronica turns the quasi-comatose duo into a semi-lively threesome as they camp out on abandoned airstrips to evade Oz’s gambling creditors or else get together to dance to ’60s rock ‘n’ roll. But once her presence forces them to take a hard look at their lives, the spell that has kept them suspended in time is broken.

Matthewz maintains a tone of easy acceptance that avoids dramatics and neutralizes expectations. Even when script goes down paths that one sees coming a mile away, the laid-back flow of the direction transforms the cliche into a shared joke. Thus when Oz and Ish’s dorky friend Junie (Andre Royo), who is constantly asking to be in their band, gives Ish a tape of his drum work which is then carelessly tossed aside, it is doubtful that anyone in the audience does not suspect that eventually the tape will be played and the music will turn out to be pure dynamite.

Thesping is smooth. Butler and Bonze effortlessly inhabit their roles, helped doubtlessly by their familiarity with the turf: Butler is a hip-hop musician and jazz-rap artist, and Bonze is an influential music critic who co-starred in and co-wrote “Slam.” Newcomer Kopacz imbues Veronica with warmth and intelligence, fleshing out a somewhat underwritten part.

Cliff Charles’ crisp Super 16mm lensing gives depth and definition to the characters’ surroundings, illuminating the Brooklyn locales and complementing the clean lines of Hannah Morrow’s uncluttered set design. Zulema Griffin’s costumes look casually flattering.

Men Without Jobs

Production

A Straphanger Films/No Work Films production. Produced by Gingi Rochelle, Mad Matthewz. Executive producer, Reyad Farraj. Directed, written by Mad Matthewz.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, Super 16mm-to-HD), Cliff Charles; editor, David Shuff; production designer, Hannah Morrow; costume designer, Zulema Griffin; sound, Dave B. Flynch; associate producer, Mark Banning; casting, Maria E. Nelson, Ellyn Long Marshall. Reviewed on videocassette, New York, April 24, 2004. (In Tribeca Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 108 MIN.

With

Ishmael Butler, Bonz Malone, Anita Kopacz, Andre Royo, Michael C. Maronna, Reg E. Cathey, Adrian Martinez.
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