Now and then you find a gem that makes sitting through most of the train wrecks that pass as movies worth it. Such a find is "Palookaville," opening today at the Charles.
Set in the paradise known far and wide as Jersey City, N.J. (Manhattan's glinting towers are on the skyline, forever mocking the futile scurrying of our heroes), it follows as three palookas try to put together an armored car heist and just do one dumb thing after another.
The suspense is never "will they get away with it?" You know they won't, they're so hapless and pathetic. (First bad career move: They try to break into a jewelry shop but penetrate a bakery instead, becoming independently wealthy in the lucrative field of doughnuts.)
The suspense, instead, is will they do something so stupid they really mess somebody up before the movie's over, and turn it to tragedy?
The movie was inspired by Italo Calvino's short stories set in Italy right after the war. The screenwriter, David Epstein, has moved the participants to Jersey, but the war is still going on, the one between the rich and the poor and the Democrats and the Republicans, so that longtime mutts like Jerry (Adam Trese), Russ (Vincent Gallo) and Sid (William Forsythe) can't get a job but can't get out of town either.
They seek, as Russ puts it, not a life of crime, but a momentary lifestyle alteration.
Epstein is a terrific writer, catching exactly moments of high surrealism and low squalor that attend enterprises such as this. He can write a great comic line, such as the one Sid yells at Jerry: "Your wife just lost the only job we had!"
Russ lives at home with his mother, sister and brother-in-law, a loutish cop who walks around in black socks, underwear and a shoulder holster, while drinking milk straight from the carton. He and Russ occupy a zone of permanent hostility. Jerry survives on his wife's grocery cashier's salary, that is, until he beats up her boss for molesting her. Poor Sid, the most decent, lives with two dogs whom he loves with enough intensity to blot out the emptiness of his rental unit and its pile of overdue bills.
These are sad, working-class guys, muddled in their thinking by the lack of opportunity and the code of macho that keeps them on edge, angry, seething with hostility.
They are unable to express anything except in the most aggressive of attitudes. Yet underneath, they're tender, hurting souls, yearning, like Gatsby, for the great light across Egg Harbor. "Palookaville" not only captures their folly but also their grandeur, their humanity.
This is another in the cycle of stupid criminal films so much the rage recently, but it's got a sweetness and a humor to it that makes it something to treasure and something unique.
Starring William Forsythe, Vincent Gallo and Adam Trese
Directed by Alan Taylor
Released by Goldwyn
Sun score: *** 1/2
Pub Date: 12/20/96