“Pathos is easy to contrive, but it’s the pornography of feelings.” That’s an arresting quote from director Robert M. Young in the press material for “Dominick and Eugene” (selected theaters Friday). In an art form where counterfeits like pathos and sentimentality pass for true emotion every day, it might even be called radical.
However, Young’s work is as good as his words. Taking potentially sticky material, the struggles of a pair of fraternal twins in which the “slow” Dominick has been breadwinner for his medical student brother Eugene, Young has held a hard line and has shaped a story of relationships that rings pure and fine as crystal.
Tom Hulce’s emotionally mercurial Dominick and Ray Liotta’s intense Eugene are rich, unsentimental, finely detailed characterizations. Their work, as well as the perfect timbre of every member of the large supporting cast, makes it clear that Young (“Alambrista,” “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” “Extremities”) has become one of our foremost directors in the strong humanistic tradition.
The screenplay--by Alvin Sargent and Corey Blechman from a story by Danny Porfirio--is set in the hilly streets and frame buildings of Pittsburgh’s working-class section. The script shades Nicky and Gino’s closely knit lives with interesting darknesses.
The muscular Nicky, developmentally handicapped ever since a childhood accident, has been brought along and emotionally nourished every step of the way by the protective Gino. Nevertheless, it takes only a few poisonous words from Nicky’s fellow garbage collector Larry (Todd Graff), a full-time sleazoid who hints that Gino will abandon his brother as soon as he’s finished with school, to bring out Nicky’s worst fantasies.
The same words feed Gino’s guilt as well. Offered a coveted spot at Stanford for his internship, Gino is wrestling with what he must do. The brothers are parentless, and Gino worries daily whether his brother can ever function on his own, since clearly Nicky can’t be torn from the security of his job nor from the familial warmth of their Italian neighborhood.
Adding to Nicky’s worries is the appearance of a girl, Jennifer Reston (a radiantly warm Jamie Lee Curtis), probably one of Gino’s rare friendships since he began med school. The two begin a tentative romance, as the increasingly nervous Nicky watches from the sidelines.
“Dominick and Eugene” (rated PG-13 for its strong emotional content) is drama nudged uneasily into melodrama by the events of its last quarter. What keeps it on the side of the angels are the warmth of the writing, especially in the crucial early scenes that set the boys’ relationship; the depth and wonderment with which Hulce imbues Nicky, making him unworldly and sweet but never cloying, and the deep emotions tapped by Hulce and Liotta as these loving brothers.
The movie is a collection of beautifully realized characters. Graff’s scavenger Larry is a swaggering blowhard, but no worse. He even cares for Nicky although half his kicks come from filling Nicky’s fertile imagination with horrors, like his talk of rats and the black plague. In his own rancid way, Larry may even believe that his own “never trust nobody” philosophy is a way of toughening Nicky up for the rigors of the world.
The people along Nicky’s garbage route are as carefully drawn, from the abundantly generous Mrs. Vinson (Jacqueline Knapp), who will teach Nicky volumes, to Mr. Johnson (Bill Cobbs), owner of the Gypsy garbage truck, whose view of Nicky is quiet but protective. Last and most important is the Chernak family--young Mikey (Tommy Snelsire), who shares with Nicky a passion for comic books, and his parents (David Strathairn, Mary Joan Negro, each fine in tellingly written roles).
Director Young proceeds gently, building his world with care, until all the blocks are in place. Our belief in the final action will depend on a devastating revelation, which we must read entirely in Hulce’s face--and we do. There have been no hints, no easy foreshadowing to take away from this moment. Only an actor’s artistry and a director’s confidence, and it works.
There has also been the superb camera work of Curtis Clark, less showy but no less controlled than his work on “Extremities”; Arthur Coburn’s subtle and succinct editing; the absolute veracity of Doug Kraner’s production design, and Trevor Jones’ fine, self-effacing musical score. And, before all these elements, the passion on the part of producers Marvin Minoff and Mike Farrell that this was a story worth telling. They seem to have been eminently right.
‘DOMINICK AND EUGENE’
An Orion Pictures release of a Farrell/Minoff Production of a Robert M. Young film. Producers Marvin Minoff, Mike Farrell. Director Young. Screenplay Alvin Sargent, Corey Blechman from a story by Danny Porfirio. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parental guidance suggested).