Friday January 31, 1997
There's a sentimental streak a mile wide in Scott Silver's "johns," but it's nonetheless engaging and poignant because David Arquette and Lukas Haas bring such vulnerability and likability to the Santa Monica Boulevard hustlers that Silver has written with such care and compassion. A tragicomic tale, "johns" is a minor film, but it fulfills its aspirations.
In interviewing actual hustlers, Silver came away impressed by their survival instincts and disturbed by their belief in the impossibility of friendship. The film opens with Arquette's John waking up in a park without his lucky sneakers, which have his life savings hidden in them. These were the shoes that were "going to take me places." John is a hustler archetype: a nice-enough-looking, outgoing, none-too-bright young man with self-deluding dreams of becoming an actor. We don't know how long he's been hitting the streets, but he's definitely beginning to look worn and seedy.
In contrast, Haas' fresh, boyish Donner has been hustling only seven weeks, learning the ropes from John and falling in love with him in the process. The film, which unfolds over Christmas, involves John's struggle to scrape up enough money to pay off a $300 debt to the menacing Jimmy the Warlock (Terrence Dashon Howard), and Donner's struggle to get John to accept his friendship and also to earn enough money to get them on a bus to Branson, Mo., where a cousin can provide them work and shelter as lifeguards at a resort. Both John and Donner, in different ways, are innocents, Donner surprisingly and dangerously so. As the film shifts into a countdown mode, it begins to fill you with the fear that these two, as they pursue various johns, aren't going to make it out of town after all.
Although "johns" grows ever more ominous, there are a number of funny moments along the way. Elliott Gould is very amusing as a prissy, romantic family man who is one of John's regulars, and so is Harper Roisman as an elderly man who picks up Donner and proves to be one tough, blunt-talking old guy. Even more deceptive is Arliss Howard's shy, stuttering customer, who takes John to a motel.
There's a graceful flow and an aptly noirish look to "johns," thanks to versatile cinematographer Tom Richmond, but you wish that Silver had not allowed his cast to become at times so unnecessarily mannered. Also, too much is too obvious or too pointedly symbolic--e.g., the Branson resort is called Camelot, it is set over Christmas, etc. The film boasts a great Charles Brown-Danny Caron score, but some of its songs underline the action too heavily.
Still and all, these are familiar, far-from-fatal flaws typical of a first feature. On the whole, "johns" augurs well for the directing future of Silver, a 1993 American Film Institute graduate.
johns, 1997. R, for strong sexual content and language, and for some violence and drug use. A First Look Pictures presentation of a Bandeira Entertainment production. Writer-director Scott Silver. Producers Beau Flynn, Stefan Simchowitz. Executive producer P. Hoit Gardiner. Cinematographer Tom Richmond. Editor Dorian Harris. Costumes Sara Jane Slotnick. Music Charles Brown, Danny Caron. Production designer Amy Beth Silver. Art director William P. Paine. Set decorator Jennifer Gentile. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. David Arquette as John. Lukas Haas as Donner. Arliss Howard as John Cardoza. Keith David as Homeless John.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun