Row Your Boat” is a likable little fable about an earnest down-and-outer with a criminal past helping a betwixt-and-between Chinese immigrant in New York City resolve her life. Too modest and lacking in urgency to be anything but a dinghy in a theatrical sea filled with supertankers, pic should have a limited future on cable and in video due to its cast names.
Well-cast, nicely made on a budget but contrived in its shuffling of stock underworld thuggery with poignant yearning, Sollace Mitchell’s film manages to stay above water most of the way on the strength of the unusual give-and-take between appealing leads Jon Bon Jovi and Bai Ling. Former plays Jamey, a sweet-natured lowlife just out of Riker’s Island who took the fall for his brother Gil (William Forsythe), a small-time hood with links to Chinatown gangsters.
Taking an $ 8-per-hour job as a door-to-door census taker in Manhattan affords Jamey the chance to meet Chun Hua (Ling), a native Chinese who lives with her baby, stern middle-aged husband and nosy, anti-American mother-in-law. Taking advantage of Chun Hua’s shaky English, Jamey begins asking her personal questions under the pretense of official necessity, a dubious ruse that becomes quite funny in the playing and has the desired effect of breaking the ice and confirming Jamey’s suspicions that Chun Hua is a lonely young lady being kept a virtual prisoner in her home.
Jamey’s initial attraction is delightfully conveyed in a light, credible manner. Chun Hua’s more gradual warming, in the course of English lessons from Jamey, carries conviction as well, given what is revealed about her past and current predicament. Far less believable, however, is the hackneyed subplot concerning Gil’s debt to a carrot-topped Chinese illegal immigrant smuggler with the ha-ha name of Tony Lo Fat, who Gil can ultimately placate only with the offering of a Chinese person. This translates into grave jeopardy for Chun Hua, her baby and the head-over-heels Jamey, who by now is willing to do anything, including sacrifice his hopes for a lasting relationship with Chun Hua, to improve prospects for her and her child.
Conclusion hits a sweetly redemptive note, but the means of getting there involve a lot of cloyingly cliched threats and gunplay involving Gil, his goons and their Chinese opponents. Despite the rote action elements, the sweet grace notes, especially in the early going, are a credit to writer-director Mitchell and to attractive thesps Bon Jovi and Ling; he’s charming in a self-deprecating way, while she puts on a winningly sunny and sometimes madcap facade to mask her inner tension and worries.
Endowed with good lensing and a solid soundtrack, indie production looks and sounds swell.