“We’ve all got to pay for our sins,” says a character early in “Down the Shore,” cluing the audience in to the drama to come between lifelong friends and a stranger who enters their lives. The greatest virtue of this rather standard family tale, directed by vet acting coach Harold Guskin and written by Sandra Jennings, is James Gandolfini’s most substantial feature role to date, echoing Tony Soprano in home only (New Jersey) and reminding auds why he’s a genuine American acting treasure. Minor fest, theatrical and cable prospects look good.
Paris-set prologue creates an expectant mood, as Susan (Maria Dizzia) is attracted to ultra-handsome Jacques (the impressive Edoardo Costa), who operates one of the few hand-cranked carousels in Europe. Three months later, Jacques shows up unannounced in a small town on the Jersey shore, informs Susan’s brother, Bailey (Gandolfini), that she’s died of cancer, and gives him her urn.
Bailey’s dumbfounded response is to lie on the beach as if he’s given up, an interesting image in which Gandolfini seems all the more vulnerable due to his physical size. Living in his family’s old house, next door to the former home of teenage flame Mary (Famke Janssen), Bailey is enraged by Jacques’ next bit of news: Susan’s will gives him co-ownership of the house.
Jacques is this narrative’s obvious device to stir up several relationships that have grown as static and inert as the boardwalk amusement park owned by Mary’s husband, Wiley (Joe Pope, who also produced), where Bailey runs the various rides with as much enthusiasm as he can muster. The combination of a near-dead Jersey beach scene and a decaying theme park is the stuff of cliche, but to the film’s credit, its routine screenplay is juiced considerably by sharp casting, turning many otherwise humdrum scenes into opportunities for interesting acting.
The script’s most problematic element is Wiley and Mary’s corrosive, increasingly violent marriage, enabling Jacques to serve as an interlocutor and lay bare everyone’s confessions and secrets. Jacques’ transition from suspicious foreigner to trusted confidant isn’t at all effectively handled, and a round of emotionally intense third-act encounters require a considerable leap of faith.
It’s easy to see how Gandolfini’s Bailey could have become, with a few unlucky turns, a bedraggled bagman for the Soprano squad, since he’s very much a Jersey Italian-American with limited prospects in life. The actor subtly underplays this man hobbled by weaknesses and past wrongs, turning his performance into a process of discovery. In keeping the film on track, Gandolfini is greatly aided by Pope and particularly Costa (looking like some kind of ideal fusion of George Clooney and Ian McShane), while Janssen is given several scenes in which to express buried emotions and bursts of rage.
Vid lensing is solid in choice wintry coastal locales, while Andrea Morricone’s underscore is mercifully brief.
Down the Shore
Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival (World Cinema Now), Jan. 7, 2011. Running time: 93 MIN.
A Pope Films presentation in association with Jersey Shore Films of a Lost Weekend production. Produced by Joe Pope.
Directed by Harold Guskin. Screenplay, Sandra Jennings. Camera (color, DV), Richard Rutkowski; editor, Andrew Ford; music, Andrea Morricone; production designer, Mary Frederickson; art directors, Emmanuelle Cuillery, Derek Wang; costume designer, Michael Bevins; sound (stereo), Dan Izen, Justin Gray; supervising sound editor, Lew Goldstein; re-recording mixer, Goldstein; line producer, Lesa Greenfield; associate producer, Andrew Ford; assistant director, Michael Goodin.
Cast: James Gandolfini, Famke Janssen, Joe Pope, Edoardo Costa, John Magaro, Emma Canot, Maria Dizzia, Gabrielle Lazure.
(English, French dialogue)