2½ stars (out of four)
If David Schwimmer has a real physical treasure on screen, it's that sensitive shlub mug propped atop his lanky jock's body. Schwimmer exploited his basset-hound melancholy to the max as "Friends'" Ross Geller, and his face, both funny and gloomy, also stands him in fine stead in his second-tier but affecting new movie, "Duane Hopwood."
If you liked "Friends," you felt for Ross, even at his most absurd and annoying. That's also part of the way you react to Schwimmer's Duane Hopwoodthough this character has a lot more edge and tension
So does the film. It's a mixed but basically likable little indie picture from the last Sundance Film Festival, written and directed by Matt Mulhern, an ex-actor whose first film, "Walking to the Waterline," had Duane as a secondary character, but no Schwimmer in the cast. Set in a November-bound Atlantic City landscape of casinos, boardwalk and dingy frame houses, Mulhern's movie shows us the city off-season, going cold and gray, while title character Duane's life seemingly falls apart.
Like the recent "The Weather Man," it's a portrait of a failed family man in the winter of his discontent, and at first glance, it's wind-whipped and sad.
But it's not necessarily an unremitting downer. Schwimmer plays Duane as an affable, heavy-drinking Caesar's Palace pit boss and divorced dad of two. The sight of this dude, haggard but determined, loping along with a jock's lanky gait and desperate pseudo-confidence creates a sympathy that tends to survive all his worst behavior. There's comedy both in his blotto alienation from the boardwalk world and from reality itself and his absurd conviction that he'll get back together with wife Linda (Janeane Garofalo). Schwimmerperhaps because of his TV familiarity but also because he's connecting to this rolekeeps us on his side.
Yet as he tries desperately to keep his life on track, despite a taste for booze and a horrendous temper, something both comical and scary keeps welling up in Duane: a dark cloud of helpless fury when he disrupts his best friend Anthony's lounge standup comedy debut (Anthony is played with comic gusto by real-life standup guy Judah Friedlander) or jeopardizes access to his small daughters Mary and Kate (played in fine, human performances by Ramya Pratt and Rachel Covey) by a DUI arrest and by waving a stick at Linda's new lover.
That's the heart of the movie, which is quite smart about the way lives can unravel but not as convincing about the ways to knit them together again.
Just as Schwimmer's Duane has a sweetness that keeps peeking through his glum, booze-fueled torpor and rage, Garofalo tempers her usual biting sarcasm with motherly, wifely concern. Duane's new inamorata, Gina (Susan Lynch), gives the movie some fleshy grit; Jerry Grayson as Carl, Duane's kindly wise guy boss, is perfect; and the two actors who play Duane's somewhat old-maidish neighbors, Steve (Steven H. Schirripa) and Fred (elfin TV talk show legend Dick Cavett) give the film some comic airiness.
It's not a terrific movie; in fact it often looks a little frowsy around the edges, just like Duane. Writer-director Mulhern is better at some things than others. "Duane Hopwood" is written well, but, even though the cinematographer is Mauricio Rubinstein of "Before Night Falls," it's visualized almost too mundanely.
Still, thanks to the actors and the way the movie lets them loose, it's often funny or moving at all the right moments. Mulhern is an ex-actor, and he's very good with the other actors: casting them right, getting them to relax into their roles, playing with and against their strengths. For example, many members of his castSchwimmer, Garofalo, Friedlander and Cavettare comedians or comic actors, while Schirripa was an entertainment director booking Las Vegas comedy acts.
Thanks to all of them, the movie becomes a comedic hard-case, soft-heart Jersey take on sadness and alienation. Viewed from the right angle, those can be rich, funny subjects.
Directed and written by Matt Mulhern; photographed by Mauricio Rubinstein; edited by Tom McArdle; production designed by Benjamin Conable; music by Michael Rohayton; produced by Lemore Syvan, Marc Turtletaub, David Friendly. An IFC Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:23. MPAA rating: R (for language).
Duane Hopwood - David Schwimmer
Linda - Janeane Garofalo
Anthony - Judah Friedlander
Gina - Susan Lynch
Fred - Dick Cavett
Steve - Steven R. Schirripa