Film

Small Worlds

by

Across the river from Boston’s tony Beacon Hill–and a world
away from the salt-of-the-earth Southie of Good Will Hunting–lies the
neighborhood of Charlestown, a mostly Irish, working-class enclave where, according to Monument
Ave
, you definitely don’t want to park your car. That’s because a gangster
called Jackie O (Colm Meaney, sounding more Irish than Irish-American) runs a crew of car
thieves. Two of them, Bobby O’Grady (Denis Leary) and Mouse (the superb Ian Hart) are
trusted members of this criminal underworld, but their boyhood pal (Billy Crudup, in a
smashing cameo) is seen as a threat. Released early from prison, he’s suspected of
being a rat, and he soon pays the price for violating the local code of silence.

Though Bobby and his friends toy with the idea of vengeance, they
strike out with predictable shortsightedness against easier targets: mothers, girlfriends,
yuppie homesteaders, and a black college student who makes the mistake of walking home
alone through Charlestown. Under Ted Demme’s accomplished direction, the film unfolds
with a kind of ruthless simplicity, observing, rather than stating, the
neighborhood’s intricate social connections. Leary is a quiet, mesmerizing dramatic
actor, and another strong performance comes from Famke Janssen, a Dutch émigré who
would be one of the most glamorous women in film if she were not so determined to
forge a career as a gritty character actress. As Bobby’s sometime lover, and Jackie
O’s mistress, she may seem a little too bright and beautiful to be marooned
in this sorry world, but like Leary, she conveys the defeat and fear behind her tough
facade, and like him, she is utterly believable.

Honor among thieves is also the focus of Hit Me, an uneven
adaptation of the Jim Thompson novel A Swell- Looking Babe, in which a bellhop
(Elias Koteas) and a suicidal prostitute (Laure Marsac) become embroiled in a conspiracy
to rob a high-stakes poker game. For a draggy hour or so, this first film by director
Steven Shainberg is nearly overwhelmed by neo-noir gloom: the setting is the creepiest,
kitschiest flophouse ever seen on celluloid, and the idea that the owner hopes to upgrade
his establishment’s rating–from two stars to three–is ludicrous. (He might
as well hang a sign out front that says, “Management has steam-cleaned ALL
bloodstained carpeting!”) But as the scam gets more complicated, and more
deadly, Hit Me develops an unexpected emotional force. The bellhop, you see, has
fallen in love, and as played by Koteas (who looks and acts like a young Robert De Niro),
passion becomes the most alluring, confusing gamble of all.

By contrast, the world of Simon Geist, mastermind of a
cutting-edge_-but bogus–publication called The Next Big Thing, is defined
by a vicious clarity. His mission, bankrolled by a neurotic, rich admirer, is to set up
interviews with up-and-coming actors, comics, and musicians, and then harangue them about
their absurd, derivative artistic pretensions. In less capable hands, The Last Big
Thing
could have become as smug as its bizarre, foghorn-voiced hero, but star,
director, and writer Dan Zukovic–who looks like a cross between Bruce Campbell of the
Evil Dead movies and Beaker from The Muppet Show–has more on his mind
than roasting the celebrity industry. Simon would be appalled by the idea, but this
furiously original movie could become the Repo Man of the ’90s.

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