What “The Good Girl” did for his “Friends” co-star Jennifer Aniston, “Duane Hopwood” may do for David Schwimmer. Pic gives the under-appreciated actor a full-course role about a character who’s surrounded by failure on every side. Writer-director Matt Mulhern confidently anchors his drama-comedy about an alcoholic Atlantic City pit boss with good writing and sharp dialogue. Script never treats characters as less than human, and, though it ultimately feels slight, pic could find an aud with careful handling.
Opening title montage shows cheerful domestic scenes with titular husband and dad Duane (Schwimmer), his wife Linda (Janeane Garofalo) and their daughters Mary (Ramya Pratt) and Kate (Rachel Covey). These scenes give way to Duane’s shadier side as he gets drunk at a bar.
After Duane is stopped for drunk driving with daughter Kate in the backseat, scene changes to Duane and Linda facing off in court. That Linda remains a woman who still loves Duane while fearing his lack of responsibility, instead of her character being reduced to that of a bitter divorcee, is a measure of the pic’s human tone.Slotting the outstanding Garofalo in the part, quite distant from both her caustic comic persona and her political activist self, marks one of many casting triumphs here.
As if his family life isn’t bad enough, Duane runs into trouble at work at Caesar’s Palace as well. A security camera catches Duane appeasing a loudmouth gambler with some cash, and his casino boss Carl (Jerry Grayson, dead-on as a blend of taskmaster and father figure) is finally compelled to let Duane go.
The only emotional cushion Duane can fall back on is clownish pal Anthony (Judah Friedlander, giddily scene-grabbing here as he was in “American Splendor”), who works as a casino guard but still dreams of a stand-up career in his late 30s.
The Anthony scenes set off a comic stream that runs through the film, and, though Mulhern at times alternates the funny and the sad in a much-too-calculated fashion, “Duane Hopwood” is finally a movie with an authentic core, deeply concerned about a good man who can’t overcome his worst weaknesses. At its best, pic reps a caring sensibility toward people that’s too often lacking in American comedies.
The movie never lets Duane off the hook, so he must face seeing his daughters (in brief scenes, Pratt and Covey are marvelous) and Linda slip away from him, and he never quite deals with his alcoholism. Enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with Anthony and amusing neighbor Fred (Dick Cavett, delivering lines with perfect timing) is all Duane has as he faces an uncertain future.
Mulhern, an actor returning to feature helming after a seven-year break (little-seen “Walking to the Waterline,” 1998), allows his camera to ponder Schwimmer’s life-worn face and eyes drooping under the weight of disappointments. Thesps clearly lap up the tasty but never show-offy dialogue, and smartly choose to underplay.
The Jersey shoreline hasn’t looked this forlorn since the first season of “The Sopranos,” though one could quibble that Mauricio Rubinstein’s lensing is too washed-out and that Michael Rohayton’s score presses emotional notes too insistently. Production overall displays a strong connection with pic’s working-class milieu.