Rosie Perez shines as a spunky taxi dancer with showbiz in her eyes in “Somebody to Love,” but she’s too often a lone beacon in a dramatically foggy and curiously unaffecting pic. Despite some treasurable moments, and a largely reliable cast, Alexandre Rockwell’s first pic since his off-the-wall cult comedy “In the Soup” rarely fires on more than one cylinder at a time. Specialized business could start off warm but looks unlikely to break out into any major salsas. Pic drew OK critical reaction at its Venice fest world preem.
Rockwell wrote the main role of a dollar-a-dance babe in a tacky L.A. club with Perez in mind, after discovering taxi dancing was still flourishing in the barrio of East Los Angeles and subsequently meeting the actress.
Pic was inspired by the Giulietta Masina character in Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” and carries a final dedication “In Memory of Federico and Giulietta.”
Though occasional scenes recall the 1957 Italo classic, Rockwell’s movie is sufficiently rooted in a West Coast milieu for any comparisons to be meaningless.
Mercedes (Perez) is a tough-talking Brooklyn transplant who spends her days being rejected at casting calls even when the part calls for a short, dark Latin woman. Her lover, Harry (Harvey Keitel), also from the East Coast, is a passed-over star who’s going through mid-age career and marital crises.
Enter Ernesto (Michael DeLorenzo), a dewy-eyed Latin kid who falls for Mercedes at the dance club and starts following her around like a faithful dog. She finds him cute and kind, but not bed material.
Keen to make an impression on his new love, Ernesto takes a job as a runner for local racketeer Emillio (Anthony Quinn). After finally being invited into Mercedes’ bed, Ernesto takes on a contract hit from Emillio to earn the $ 10,000 she and Harry need to return to Gotham and start over. Ending is bloody and tragic, but with an upbeat coda similar to the ending of Fellini’s “Cabiria.”
Pic’s biggest problem is establishing a tone. Opening scenes, with Perez involved in some machine-gun repartee with a hustler-agent (Stanley Tucci), and later attending the club and some disastrous casting sessions, have a zing and pace and off-the-wall characters that recall the best bits of “In the Soup.” When the Mercedes-Ernesto story hoves into view, however, the movie starts on another path that never really jells.
Given that Mercedes clearly is a loser and her relationship with Ernesto is a non-starter, pic’s flat dialogue drags down a movie that initially seemed to celebrate the wackier side of day-to-day life among L.A.’s showbiz fringe.
In between, Rockwell lards the film with a host of referential in-jokes that sometimes work but increasingly backfire.
Here’s Steve Buscemi, camping it up as a drag queen at the dance joint; there’s Quentin Tarantino (briefly) as a fast-talking bartender.
Keitel, in a come-and-go part, is strangely low-key, even when misquoting Shakespeare in leopard-skin briefs and propping up the bar at Perez’s club. Quinn, who starts well in an unfamiliarly melancholy role, later disappears for most of the movie until yanked back into the plot to provide a dramatic resolution to the Ernesto-Mercedes story.
The movie’s one constant is Perez, who acquits herself well. Wearing a succession of tacky, figure-hugging clothes, she single-handedly creates a character of superficial hopes and half-understood desires who deserves a sharper script and company than she gets.
J. Rae Fox’s production design fits Perez’s role like a glove, from the low-rent dance club that’s a symphony of kitsch to her own chaotic apartment. Lensing by Robert Yeoman (“Drugstore Cowboy”) is sharp and clean in exteriors and richly colored in interiors. Sole technical blip, in the print caught, is a sometimes misbalanced soundtrack, which in dance hall sequences makes dialogue difficult to hear against music and effects.