Some nice work by several inventive character actors provides most of the diversion in “Welcome to Collinwood,” a comic caper that’s as minor-league as its low-rent characters. With a classy pedigree courtesy of producers Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, the latter of whom puts in an extended cameo, this Cleveland-set remake of the minor Italian classic “Big Deal on Madonna Street” generates agreeable feelings for its sweetly clueless characters along with a few decent laughs. But B.O. haul will compare to that of “Ocean’s Eleven” in direct proportion to the difference in the stakes of the robberies in the respective Warner Bros. releases.
Loosely based on the 1958 Mario Monicelli hit about a bunch of bumbling small-timers trying to pull a job, new pic, due out Sept. 13, marks the feature debut of another set of brothers, Anthony and Joe Russo, whose medium-length student film “Pieces” was noticed by Soderbergh at Sundance in 1997. On the basis of their work here, it would appear that the Russos, Cleveland natives themselves, have a gift for eliciting humorous and empathetic performances from actors, but they place too much faith in the ability of their talented thesps to carry the day over precariously thin material.
“Big Deal” may have played as well as it did at the time because of the relative novelty of its antic, class-rooted twist on the heist genre. Over the past decade or so, however, every possible variation, comic and otherwise, seems to have been wrought on the criminal caper format, meaning you’ve got to come up with something considerably more original, showy or vital than “Collinwood” to lure audiences in a significant way.
Presented as a long flashback, yarn groups together a bunch of misfits all in need of a boost out of life’s gutter. Among them are Riley (William H. Macy), who’s stuck caring for his baby full-time while his wife does prison time for lack of $1,000; Leon (Isaiah Washington), a smart-dressing chap who’s protective of his beautiful sister Michelle (Gabrielle Union); Pero (Sam Rockwell), who seems bright enough to know better but falls for an attractive maid (Jennifer Esposito) with so many lovers they practically have to take a number; and Toto (Michael Jeter), an old-timer up for one more go at the gold.
Like many post-Tarantino crime pics, this one strives to introduce some new words into the lexicon; the big ones here are “Bellini,” meaning the chance of a lifetime, and “Mullinski,” referring to a poor sap you can pay to do prison time. As Leon says, “Every sucker in the projects has got a Bellini,” and to help them get theirs the motley crew hires wheelchair-bound master safecracker Jerzy (Clooney) to teach them what they need to know.
Given that the intended heist itself is not very interesting or challenging, brief running time is filled out with elaborations on Pero’s courting of the flighty Carmela, Riley’s babysitting problems and the quickly serious relationship of another member of the group, Basil (Andrew Davoli), with Michelle, and how he bails on the job when she reveals how much she values honesty in a man.
Coming an hour in, the would-be heist lasts but 15 minutes, and is highlighted mostly by some literal pants-down lowbrow nonsense from Jeter, whose antics are worthy of silent film comedy. Rockwell and Esposito make an unlikely but appealing pair, Macy has some good moments of bland resignation and, indeed, everyone comes off well, as the characters’ humanity and raw luck in life are stressed in favor of the posing and play-acting the genre so often encourages.
But there’s precious little at stake here, as the Russos at best make diverting little doodles in the margins of crime-film lore. Locations on the down-and-out eastern fringes of Cleveland are at least fresh, and tech contributions are solid on an indie-sized $8 million budget.