Fun, generally upbeat tour of NYC’s Lower East Side, as seen by the denizens of a tenement, scores points with a big, talented cast (with most players working against type) and a smart boho attitude. Sharper editing — as it’s too late for more detailed writing or fuller characterizations — would be needed for likable pic to break out of festival ghetto, where “Somewhere in the City” will be a natural attraction.
Biggest surprise here is Sandra Bernhard, who eschews her usual full-throttle manias to play a subdued, if not quite introverted, character. Her memorable Betty is a gangly, unlucky-in-love therapist (at the first session depicted, it seems she’s the patient) who somehow anchors the old brownstone where all the pic’s characters live.
She certainly takes Lu Lu (China’s beautiful Bai Ling) under her wing, although the shy immigrant overdoes her Americanization a bit with a red-leather miniskirt and shocking-pink wig. Lu Lu, unknowingly, also is under the approving scrutiny of Che (Paul Anthony Stewart), a trust-fund radical too caught up in the Revolution to act on his romantic impulses — or on anything else, for that matter.
Just below Betty lives Marta (Ornella Muti), an Italian immigrant married to the building’s gruesome super. She’s cheating with her neighbor (Robert John Burke), a romantic hustler whose petty scams and rip-offs always seem to sour. When he shows up with a nice “borrowed” car and promises to take her away, Marta’s delighted — until she finds out he’s about to pull the proverbial One Last Job.
In the film’s comic apotheosis, that heist, involving some particularly unreliable cohorts (including French star Bulle Ogier), goes terribly, hilariously wrong. Nothing else reaches quite that level of energy though, and some elements are somewhat half-baked. A plot thread with Peter Stormare (the taciturn kidnapper in “Fargo”) as an unemployed Shakespearean thesp and part-time coach provides bittersweet texture as far as it goes, which isn’t far enough.
Affection for all the characters is evident in handling by first-time writer-helmer Ramin Niami, an Iranian-born filmmaker with a solid docu background. But the tale’s ideas should have been tougher and its pace a lot breezier. Snipping could still help, as some scenes — particularly when the now slutty-looking Lu Lu taunts her conservative Chinese uncle — simply go on too long for the small points they make.
Niami has stated that he was inspired by Maxim Gorky’s “The Lower Depths,” elements of which already have been exploited by Eugene O’Neill, Jean Renoir and others, but his “City” lacks the existential darkness and folksy lyricism of the Russian play and its descendants.
What it does have is an engaging cast (Stewart and Stormare are notably inventive) and a handsome look, thanks to Lisa Albin’s nifty production design, with some input from veteran Richard Hoover. Pic’s central locale was built entirely on a Brooklyn soundstage, allowing for some arresting tracking shots, especially at scene-setting start, and a seductive textural continuity — albeit the only continuity at times — between threadbare subplots.
Hipper-than-thou soundtrack, produced by Walter Yetnikoff and ranging from Ani Di Franco to title-seg torcher sung by Bernhard, is a marketable plus, and several offbeat bands, including the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, make onscreen appearances. In short, pic is amiable excursion into Gorky Lite that could click with urban swingers, even if older auds ask for more depth, lower or otherwise.