The New Jersey layabouts in "Palookaville" make the at-loose-ends L.A. guys in "Swingers" look as directed as the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Would-be tough guys, would-be romantic successes, would-be a lot of things, these three pals fumble whatever they try their hands at, and the film that details their hapless doings has a similar shambling sensibility.
Dedicated to Italo Calvino and based on three of his short stories, "Palookaville," which won the best first feature prize at the Venice Film Festival, has numerous Italian connections. The filmmakers themselves give credit to the comic heist film "Big Deal on Madonna Street," but Rachel Portman's score, with its unmistakable echoes of Nino Rota, points explicitly to Federico Fellini.
Fellini's third feature, 1953's "I Vitelloni," similarly deals with a group of buddies who have hung around the old neighborhood too long. And a literal translation of that title as "overgrown calves" exactly conveys the personalities of the "Palookaville" posse.
"Boys don't always grow up" is how June (Frances McDormand), an acerbic local hooker puts it in one of screenwriter David Epstein's better speeches. "They age, they put on weight, they lose hair, they grow lumps and warts, they have regrets, lose their tempers and they blame women, but they do not automatically grow up and become men."
That on-the-nose manifesto is typical of the sensibility of "Palookaville's" women, all of whom have more sense than the "self-unemployed" trio of male protagonists who are perpetually looking for a way out of their flattened-out lives.
Sid (William Forsythe) is the loneliest of the trio, ejected by his wife and living with his always hungry dogs in an apartment he's about to get evicted from. It's only by chance that he meets Enid (Bridgit Ryan), who works in a thrift store and may be more eccentric than he is.
Jerry ("Laws of Gravity's" Adam Trese) is married to Betty (Lisa Gay Hamilton), whose job at a local supermarket supports the family. Though the couple have a baby son, Jerry's spacey detachment marks him as more childlike than adult.
Russ (Vincent Gallo) is the one with the nominal drive, as well as a nasty temper, always itching to "put some things together." But living at home with his mom, his married sister and her Ed the cop husband (Gareth Williams), Russ is not adult enough to admit to the extent of his involvement with a young woman (Kim Dickens) who lives conveniently across the alley.
"Palookaville" opens like a heist movie, with a robbery of a jewelry store that doesn't go as planned. That leads to endless discussions as to whether the guys are cut out for a life of crime. Don't think of it that way, insists Russ, it's just "a momentary shift in lifestyles." The desultory adventures of this trio, half-comic, half-fretful, as they attempt to make something go right for them takes up the bulk of "Palookaville's" time. The film is nicely directed by Alan Taylor, with numerous likable and amusing touches, but it doesn't add up to much. We've been down these not-so-mean streets numerous times before, and the film's sense of familiarity is not an advantage.
Palookaville, 1996. R, for language. Playhouse International Pictures presents in association with the Samuel Goldwyn Co. and Redwave Films, released by the Samuel Goldwyn Co. Director Alan Taylor. Producer Uberto Pasolini. Executive producer Lindsay Law. Screenplay David Epstein. Cinematographer John Thomas. Editor David Leonard. Costumes Katherine Jane Bryant. Music Rachel Portman. Production design Anne Sthuler. Art director Roswell Hamrik. Set dresser Avery S. Brandon. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. William Forsythe as Sid. Vincent Gallo as Russ. Adam Trese as Jerry. Frances McDormand as June. Lisa Gay Hamilton as Betty. Bridgit Ryan as Enid. Kim Dickens as Laurie.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times