A disappointingly rote entry in the ’70s teen nostalgia sweepstakes, “Outside Providence” plays like the real thing — which is to say it would have fared better in that era’s drive-in marketplace than at the ’90s multiplex. If pic feels like a dusted-off trunk item, that’s probably because it is: Current comedy kings Peter and Bobby Farrelly evidently conceived it (drawing on former’s 1988 novel) well before hitting pay dirt with “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary.” They’ve remained on board as co-writers/producers, but the signature zaniness is missing from director Michael Corrente’s adaptation. A few stray (and low) yuks aside, it’ll take a mighty bong hit indeed to lend the independently produced, Miramax-released seriocomedy much potency amid a crowded back-to-school-time release slate.
Corrente (“Federal Hill,” “American Buffalo”) and the Farrellys based their collaborative script on shared experiences growing up in working-class Rhode Island. But results have a generic feel that’s closer to “Porky’s,” “The Chicken Chronicles” and other B-minus laff-fests from the era itself than to any first-person reality.
That said, scenario does try to ground the saga of amiable protag Tim Dunphy (Shawn Hatosy) in bittersweet family history — he and wheelchair-bound younger sib Jackie (Tommy Bone) have been raised solo by a tough-loving dad (Alec Baldwin) in gritty Pawtucket since their mother mysteriously flew the coop some years earlier. But once Tim and his buddies run afoul of the cops during one hazy joyride, the old man throws up his hands — and throws the son he semi-affectionately calls Dildo into the nearest prep school.
There, Tim finds his slacker ways at odds with the jacket-and-tie conformity of 1974’s Cornwall Academy. But he manages to charm beauteous coed Jane (Amy Smart), whose Ivy League aspirations have a positive effect on his grade point average.
This doesn’t sit well with resident nemesis Mr. Funderberk (Timothy Crowe) — he’s determined to get the prank-inclined new enrollee expelled. But Tim’s antics wind up endangering Jane’s future instead. Some wan drama ensues, with Tim begging university officials to reinstate his g.f., hard-drinking Dad admitting that it “wasn’t easy bein’ Ozzie when you ain’t got a Harriet,” and a Just Say No moment triggered by one Pawtucket pal’s premature demise.
Pic is more dependent on perfunctory slapstick, however, with little real effort expended on character depth. Abrupt flashbacks thus disclose the reason for a nerdy classmate’s nickname (Jizz) — as well as for Tim and Jackie’s far more crucial maternal loss. Pic’s scrambled priorities likewise tend to shortchange nuances that might have better differentiated Tim’s prep-schoolmates, his Rhode Island stoner pals, and Dad’s poker-playing buddies. (The latter include George Wendt as a man whose sexuality gets yanked out of the closet in a gratuitous, if well-intentioned, subplot.)
Given little to work with, the younger players make a pleasant impression but prove hard to separate. Baldwin has fun growling out lines like “Show some class, fer chrissake” as the exasperated father figure here; his Ralph Kramden impression is one note but affectionately drawn. Pic’s look is on the drab side, despite use of two different film stocks (Cornwall Academy scenes get a warmer visual treatment). A soundtrack full of predictable Top 40 flashback fodder provides most of the period flavor.