Friday September 27, 1996

     Some actors grow into their roles; some grow into their images. Others grow into themselves.
     Edward James Olmos, whose screen portrayals have ricocheted from the vicious to the noble to the ignoble to the lost, has matured into a monument to all those qualities--plus multi-ethnicity and weathered flesh. He may be the most American of actors at this time, for these times.
     In "Caught," Robert Young's melancholic drama about sexual wrongdoing and moral conflict, Olmos is Joe, a Jersey City tradesman with a bad heart and some unhinged dreams.
     Having abandoned college after Vietnam because his wife, Betty (Maria Conchita Alonso), got pregnant, he went into the fish business. Is he working for scale?
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     No, but his now-twentysomething son Danny (Steven Schub) is an obnoxious comic and "Star Search" reject. His wife is aloof. His life is a series of 4 a.m. alarms, fish slime and bedtime. He wears his demi-tragedy like a blood apron.
     One day Nick (Arie Verveen), a homeless drifter, ducks into their Jersey City fish store and life changes. He's immediately adopted by Betty, moves in with them and becomes the reluctant Joe's apprentice, student and "first mate." Nick puts a spark back in their lives. And they save his.
     Young, the director, producer, cinematographer and documentarian whose work has included "Children of Fate," "Dominick and Eugene," "Triumph of the Spirit" and "Short Eyes," creates a scene that's ripe for cliche. But everything is as it seems, at least at first.
     Betty, played with lusty undertones by Alonso, responds to Nick maternally, not sexually. She misses her own son and sees in Nick something decent. Joe is a crusty working stiff with an artistic streak; he's a maestro with a boning knife who'd like to be running a fleet of fishing boats. Nick is genuinely grateful for their help, works hard for Joe and seems to have found a life he could lead.
     The neighborhood around the store is being gentrified, but Joe, by nature, resists. "I wouldn't sell if they offered me a million dollars," he says defiantly. Betty, who wants out, is furious and asks Nick to intervene.
     Subtly, he does, and Joe begins to see that money could make his dreams come true. Happiness is breaking out all over. And then sex--and the great human dilemma of being unable to do right because our glands tell us to do wrong--sticks a gaff into their garden.
     Young has been cluing us in from the start, perhaps not so subtly: The shots within the house are edgy, fragmented; the characters are seen in mirrored reflections, half-framed in doorways, incomplete and semi-suggestive.
     It's effective image-making--as are the eroticized Georgia O'Keeffe-like shots of boned shad in the fish store--and Young's intent is even more noticeable when he cuts away to a place like Fulton Fish Market, a domain with its own idiosyncratic but sound moral order. Home, on the other hand, is roiling.
     The crisis hits high gear when Danny returns unexpectedly from Los Angeles with his son and wife, Amy (Bitty Schram, of "A League of Their Own"). He picks up on the Betty-Nick scenario immediately and, finding himself displaced within the family by the new "son," sets about exposing them.
     Danny is a fascinating grotesquerie, a shameless mugger who's just about unbearable to watch (Schub gives a startling performance). Where Danny came from, however, is another question. From Joe and Betty? How about from another planet?
     "Caught" is about simple people who aren't simple. Young and screenwriter-novelist Edward Pomerantz create complex characters who are neither heroes nor villains but not precisely victims either. The first and last images we see are of fish, swimming around and occasionally being snared in a net.
     They might have avoided it. How they do and why they don't are subjects of endless fascination.


Caught, 1996. R, for strong sexuality and language and for some violence and drug use. A Robert M. Young production, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Robert M. Young. Producers Richard Brick, Irwin Young. Screenplay Edward Pomerantz. Cinematographer Michael Barrow. Editor Norman Buckley. Production and costume design Hilary Rosenfeld. Music Chris Botti. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. Edward James Olmos as Joe. Maria Conchita Alonso as Betty. Arie Verveen as Nick. Steven Schub as Danny. Bitty Schram as Amy.