In making “Green Lights,” debut helmer Robert H. Lieberman achieves spectacularly funny results by substituting warmth, wonder and merriment for the oppressive cynicism inherent in the Hollywood insider comedy. Pic understands why audiences love movies, and shares that awestruck sentiment without being naive. Though it lacks big stars, a whiz-kid director or a particularly high concept, in a just world this delightful romp would meet with the same word-of-mouth success as the low-key “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
“Green Lights” delivers the small town-meets-Hollywood vibe David Mamet was shooting for with the failed “State and Main.” It’s the story of Bob Beeman (John FitzGibbon), an affable, daydreaming location scout for the New York City offices of Everest Pictures, one of the film industry’s biggest studios. Beeman has the job as a result of his being married to the sister (the very funny Mimi Bensinger) of one of Everest’s top executives (Joel Leffert, who suggests a great, hunched-over bald eagle). But when Beeman descends on the sleepy college town of Ithaca to assess potential locations for an upcoming Everest big-budgeter (entitled “Virgin Blood”), news of his arrival spreads through the hamlet, and in no time, he’s mistaken for an important film producer, and ambushed by a steady stream of auditioning wannabes even as he checks into his roadside motel.Just when it looks like this is going to be a one-joke comedy, Lieberman plays on Beeman’s character to add depth; “Green Lights” is not just about a case of mistaken identity, but about the way Beeman comes to enjoy the attention, the way that fancying himself a producer gives him a hint of the dignity he’s never really been awarded. And FitzGibbon, a wonderfully wide-eyed comic actor whose expressiveness and gift for physical comedy recalls Terry Keiser of the “Weekend at Bernie’s” movies, is more than up to the task of carrying the action. Among those to pitch themselves at Beeman are the screenwriting (and songwriting) team of Jimmy (Daniel Dresner) and Alex (Shawn Randall), who’ve written a musical called “Julio,” about a poor kid from Spanish Harlem who dreams of becoming a cab driver. It’s one of those great, absurd movies-within-movies, like the nudie musical from “S.O.B.,” made all the funnier by the fact that it’s so frighteningly close to a movie Hollywood actually made: “Newsies.”
Beeman gets hooked on the idea — it reminds him of his own father who was a cabbie — and when Everest balks at making the film, Beeman can’t bring himself to break the bad news to his new friends. They will make the picture, he declares, right there in Ithaca!
Though he initially plays their over-enthusiasm for laughs, Lieberman (an Ithacan himself) doesn’t present the locals as a bunch of hicks. They’re savvy enough about the filmmaking process to not be hornswoggled, and when Beeman solicits investors at a local Rotary Club meeting, the skeptical potential backers ask all the right questions. Moreover, Beeman himself is more than a comic patsy: when we see him working as a location scout, he’s good at what he does; then, when he segues to the role of producer, he’s pretty good at that too.
“Green Lights” may invoke Capra in its big-hearted treatment of characters and its ability to mix pathos with the laughter, but it never gets too mawkish. Moreover,at the 90-minute mark, it has good sense to wrap things up while it’s still on a roll.
With his white suit, broad Panama hat and even broader, irrepressible grin, Beeman suggests a modern-day “Music Man,” come to sprinkle a little magic over a town where not much exciting happens. The townsfolk, composed mostly of locally cast thesps and non-professionals, is equally winning.
Shooting in digital video with the documentary cameraman Slawomir Grunberg, Lieberman gets upstate New York right, down to the wood-paneled kitchens and linoleum floors. Pic is peppered with some delightful visual gags, like a limousine pulling up to a house with a goat tethered in the front yard, and a corporate logo that’s a witty parody of Paramount. And there’s a nice hat-tip to the famed Wharton Studios, which made a name for itself making movies in Ithaca at the dawn of American filmmaking.