Story of a young man whose gambling debts scale the same heights as his skyrocketing career is anchored by a sensitive turn from Elio Germano ("My Brother Is an Only Child"), though the unfocused screenplay fails to tease out the big issues lurking beneath the daily motions.

For an Italian radio presenter, the voice of reason becomes only a faint echo in the distance in “The Early Bird Catches the Worm. Story of a young man whose gambling debts scale the same heights as his skyrocketing career is anchored by a sensitive turn from Elio Germano (“My Brother Is an Only Child”), though the unfocused screenplay fails to tease out the big issues lurking beneath the daily motions. Late February bow at home was uneventful despite the film’s infamous real-life origins; abroad, the only safe bet will be Euro cable.

Just before turning 30 in 1990, Marco Baldini (Germano) starts working in local radio in Florence just to spite his father (Antonio Buonomo), who wanted him to take up banking. Soon, Marco gets an offer to do a morning show on a national radio station in Milan.

Marco’s career takes off, especially after his diminutive big boss (Dario Vergassola) pairs him with Sicilian loose cannon Rosario (Corrado Fortuna). But with his newfound riches and long afternoons to kill, Marco’s casual gambling habit starts to become an addiction. At the horse races in Milan, betting-office clerk Cristiana (Laura Chiatti) quietly observes him as his obsession grows and he accumulates debts he can never repay.

After his impressive debut with “Pater Familias,” helmer Francesco Patierno’s second feature follows the well-trod path of the linear-narrative biopic — it may be lifelike, but it’s also almost lifeless, with no real dramatic momentum. As the film alternates between Marco’s radio successes and his increasingly illegal ways of finding money, the character takes on little depth, despite Germano’s efforts to keep him grounded in reality.

Pic’s major problem is the screenplay — based on Baldini’s autobiography and co-written by him and Patierno — which seems to hope that the sum of events in Baldini’s life will somehow translate into a fascinating portrait. But the tragic irony of someone who started losing money when he started making money, and who was an expert at brightening up other people’s days while he made his own more miserable, never really breaks the surface.

The device of Baldini reflecting on his life in v.o., as if he were the subject of one of his own sketches, could have been used more. As it is in the book, the fact that Baldini did finally get his life back on the rails is omitted.

Germano basically carries the picture, with all other roles relegated to supports. Fortuna adds some spice, but Chiatti is purely decorative.

For a period story that combines radio and horse racing, there’s precious little of either in the movie. Cinematography and production design are bland, though the costumes do bring the late ’80s and early ’90s vividly to life. Soundtrack is decidedly minor for a film about a radio deejay, and the choice of several pieces by Brit band the Real Tuesday Weld, active since 1997, seems odd.

The Early Bird Catches the Worm

Italy

Production

A Medusa release of a Rodeo Drive production, in association with Medusa Film, Sky. Produced by Marco Poccioni, Marco Valsania. Directed by Francesco Patierno. Screenplay, Patierno, Marco Baldini, inspired by Baldini's autobiography "Il giocatore (ogni scomessa e un debito)."

Crew

Camera (color), Mauro Marchetti; editor, Renata Salvator; music, Pivio, Aldo De Scalzi; production designer, Tommaso Bordone; costume designer, Eva Coen; sound (Dolby), Paolo Lucaferri; assistant director, Fabio Simonelli. Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (competing), July 5, 2008. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Elio Germano, Laura Chiatti, Carlo Monni, Corrado Fortuna, Dario Vergassola, Antonio Buonomo.
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