The team behind “Stand and Deliver” has delivered Disney a difficult marketing proposition: a predominantly serious film about a subject matter that seems rife with humor. As a result, this uneven true story about an out-of-work longshoreman who finds $ 1.2 million lying in the street seems destined for no such luck at the box office, despite the strong performance by John Cusack at its core.
Cusack plays Joey Coyle, a none-too-bright blue-collar guy who, at 26, is watching the American Dream slip by: He’s living with his family in South Philadelphia, estranged from his girlfriend (Debi Mazar, from TV’s “Civil Wars”) , and he can’t even get his straight-arrow brother to give him work at the docks.
Driving along with one of his pals, Joey finds a bundle of money that has fallen out of an armored car, and he starts dreaming of the good life. Unfortunately, his ill-advised use of the cash creates an easy trail for a local detective (Michael Madsen) to follow, while Joey gets in deeper and deeper over his head by trying to launder the loot through the mob.
Director Ramon Menendez and producer Tom Musca, who co-wrote the script with Carol Sobieski, never bring much life to this production, in part because Joey’s efforts are so inept and misguided from the get-go.
Surrounding the lead with various unattractive characters, the filmmakers don’t exploit Joey’s initial exultation, instead turning out a thinly veiled political tract about haves and the hopelessness of have-nots — barely articulated through the reaction of the caring cop, nicely played by Madsen, who grew up in the neighborhood and understands the desperation those environs can produce.
That approach certainly distinguishes “Money for Nothing” from the TV-movie tack that might have been used — showing Joey going on a “Home Alone 2”-type shopping spree, for example — but it isn’t particularly entertaining, and the fact that Joey is destined not to enjoy his accidental gains never seems in doubt.
If there’s a moral lesson here it’s lost in the movie’s general ambivalence, with lots of people telling Joey to give the money back but, based on the way his life is depicted, little incentive for him to do so.
Cusack plays essentially the same character he created in “Say Anything”– a directionless 20-something type with, for the most part, a good heart. His efforts to win back his gal prove endearing, although her reactions also convey the indecision that generally plagues the whole production.
Menendez does deliver some flashes of what might have been, such as the warmth of a late exchange between Joey and his brother (James Gandolfini), but the movie keeps drawing back to its title through darkly comedic flourishes — fostering images of a lighthearted Dire Straits song that ends with the refrain “and your chicks for free.”
Tech credits exhibit blue-collar craftsmanship, as cameraman Tom Sigel and production designer Michelle Minch capture the squalor of Joey’s life in pastel-gray tones.
Pic carries a dedication to the late Joey, who died recently. Like the character himself, “Money for Nothing” has an opportunity for better things but, despite good intentions, can’t quite get it right.