One of the many, many things we film scribblers will have to answer for when we go before the Big Critic in the Sky is the ruination of Abel Ferrara. Once upon a time, he was a good solid exploitation filmmaker, with such sensational atrocities to his credit as "Ms. .45" and "The King of New York."
Then, with "The Bad Lieutenant," he was discovered by the literati and the A guys started writing exegesis rather than reviews. Instead of saying, "It hits with the ramrod slam of a red hot fireplace poker!" they were saying, "His is a truly despairing evocation of the angst that troubles us all."
The fool believed it, and now he makes art films, not movies, much to the consternation of us all. Here is his latest, "The Funeral," which is like "The Godfather" packed in cosmoline and broiled for a hundred years. Slow and overcooked.
The movie is really pretty simple, except that it takes itself as seriously as Proust's notes to himself. It has to do with a Mafia family's reaction to the death of its younger son, a radical gangster (Vincent Gallo). His two surviving brothers -- Ray (Christopher Walken) and Chez (Chris Penn) -- attempt to work out the meaning of it all, and take appropriate action. The time is the '30s, not deeply enough evoked.
Ray is smart; Chez is dumb. Ray acts intelligently; Chez acts stupidly. Ray does the right thing; Chez does the wrong thing. End of story.
The level of acting is exquisitely high, though Walken seems content to concede the nutso histrionics to Penn. His Ray is solemn, controlled, concerned. It's a taut, disciplined performance, wasted in the film, which amounts to very little of consequence.
Penn gets to raise the rafters. He has one scene where to assuage his grief, he sings a throaty blues number -- hmm, why do I doubt many Italian gangsters of the '30s sang the blues? -- where he shows a good voice and incredible presence. He is always interesting, but he has no luck making sense of the thrust of the story and its final lurch into total absurdity.
Meanwhile, Annabella Sciorra and Isabella Rossellini are wasted as the two brothers' long-suffering and almost totally ignored wives. And Benicio del Toro, gathering accolades for a number of offbeat performances in independent films, has a nice turn as a gangster who runs afoul of the brothers.
Starring Christopher Walken and Chris Penn
Directed by Abel Ferrara
Released by October Films
Rated R (Violence, sex)
Sun score: **
Pub Date: 12/13/96