If God didn’t want us to watch mob movies, He wouldn’t have given us Brooklyn Italians — or so one gathers from “Brooklyn Rules,” a sometimes funny, occasionally maudlin coming-of-age dramedy that wants to be “Goodfellas” but might have been called “Mild in the Streets.” Coming-of-age pic could boost the careers of Scott Caan, Mena Suvari and “Entourage’s” Jerry Ferrara, while doing less for Freddie Prinze Jr. or any aud anticipating a fresh twist on a cheese-encrusted genre.
Writer Terence Winter (“The Sopranos,” “Get Rich or Die Tryin’ “) is a Brooklyn native, but the tone of the film is alien: The way the characters speak and live on Winter’s not-so-mean-streets has more to do with other movies than outer boroughs. “I learned to live by a different set of rules,” says narrates Michael Turner (Prinze) — rules that apparently prepared him for the prelaw program at Columbia U. and, eventually, a romance with the waspy Ellen (Suvari).
Except for the occasional run-in with neighborhood wiseguy Caesar Manganaro (Alec Baldwin) — the type of businessman who discourages a rival by cutting off his ear in a meat slicer — there’s very little in the life of Michael or his pals Bobby (Ferrara) and Carmine (Caan) that suggests struggle, poverty, crime or anything but an easy middle-class existence.
Helmer Michael Corrente, who covered budding gangsterhood to far better effect in his debut “Federal Hill,” doesn’t have a lot to work with in Winter’s script, which spends pages reaching places a few well-played scenes could get to with half the effort. Apparently, the story is based on the real-life experience of Winter and his two best friends, who led a far more pedestrian existence than the one portrayed in the film.
Pic probably would have been better without the forced criminal elements: In one scene, the characters’ younger selves find a man in a car with a bullet hole in his head. They don’t panic or tell anyone; they simply take his cigarettes, his gun and his dog before moving on. Since the viewer has no reason to think the characters are this jaded to murder, they come off as very strange children.
But perhaps that’s why Carmine is so fascinated with mob life and wants to step into Caesar’s Gucci loafers, a career path that invariably affects his pals and their plans. Bobby wants to marry and work for the post office. Michael wants to break free of Brooklyn by maneuvering through the Ivy League in Brooks Brothers crewnecks. How they get where they’re going, or don’t, is the crux of the story.
The performances are the reason to watch “Brooklyn Rules,” although they are markedly uneven. Caan, who specializes in strutting punks (see the current “Lonely Hearts”), has another on his hands in Carmine, but the actor also reveals an emotional depth not previously seen. Ferrara is also convincing, and charming, as the supposed cheapskate Bobby; and Baldwin proves, once again, how he controls the screen whenever he’s on it.
Suvari, who might have played Ellen as a cliche, gives a real performance. Prinze, though, is simply miscast, and fits into this story about as well as Michael does at Columbia.
Richard P. Crudo’s shooting is first-rate, as, generally, are the production values.