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Movie Reviews : Masterful Acting Makes a Tasty ‘Soup’

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TIMES FILM CRITIC

“In the Soup” (selected theaters) is a charming pipsqueak of a movie, a playful film of ragged and shaggy appeal. All its virtues are small-scale except for one, because inside this little picture is the year’s largest, most robust pieces of acting, a performance that no one can resist, Aldolpho Rollo least of all.

Aldolpho (Steve Buscemi) is “Soup’s” would-be hero. A timid, idealistic, embryo film director, he lives in a low-rent, walk-up tenement in Manhattan, a poster from revered Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky on his wall and dreams of glory in his heart. Someday he’ll make his movies, someday tour buses will visit his apartment and a plaque on the wall will commemorate his scuffling days. Someday maybe even Angelica (Jennifer Beals), the beautiful girl next door, will do more than snarl at him. But for now, with his erratic landlords, the Bafardis, on his case, what he really needs is money.

Aldolpho had to sell his favorite books. His meeting with deeply underground producers Barbara and Monty (Carol Kane and director Jim Jarmusch) did not turn out at all the way he expected. Even his mother has done all she could. All Aldolpho has left is his most precious possession, a massive, tattered, 500-page script for his film-to-be, the aptly named “Unconditional Surrender.” So he places an ad, offering the script for sale. Which is how Joe comes into his life.

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Joe (Seymour Cassel) is everything Aldolpho is not. A man who doesn’t recognize any boundaries--legal, social or moral--who cheerfully lives by rules he makes up as he goes along, yet who manages an ease with people, a twinkly-eyed charm that Aldolpho can’t even imagine. “Joe had this way of making people feel important,” Aldolpho tells us in the film’s amusingly ironic voice-over, “even though you knew he was taking you for a ride.”

It’s not so much that Joe isn’t what he seems, it’s that he seems to be several different people, invariably all at the same time. When he firsts meets Aldolpho, he introduces the nervous director to his giggling topless girlfriend Dang (Pat Moya), hands him $1,000 and menaces him with a gun, all within the space of a couple of minutes. Before Aldolpho can even think about adjusting to all this, Joe announces he wants the two of them to be “in the soup,” to work together. “I’ve decided,” he says with perfect mock-earnestness, “I want art to be an important part of my life.”

Aldolpho, understandably confused about whether “this guy Joe was what I was looking for,” can’t help but give in to the man’s energy and his enthusiasm. Never mind that this means hanging out with Skippy (Will Patton), Joe’s psychotic hemophiliac brother, and getting involved in all sorts of nefarious, not to say illegal, schemes. After all, wasn’t it true what Joe said: “Before you make films, you have to make money”? The questions could come later.

Basing “In the Soup” (Times-rated Mature) on his own experiences as a young filmmaker, director Alexandre Rockwell (who co-wrote the clever script with Tim Kissel) has constructed a light cinematic Bildungsroman , a neoclassic story of the emotional education of a young artist. For Aldolpho Rollo is not only a tyro director, he is also a neophyte human being, and hanging out with Joe forces him to engage with life and, ultimately, to get a life of his own as well.

Rockwell, whose previous features were little seen, has not let the fact that he had to make this film on a shoestring, at one point even borrowing money from his mother-in-law’s pension fund, hamper his sense of style or of fun. He had the film shot (by Phil Parmet) in expressive black and white, and allowed his actors (including his wife, “Flashdance” survivor Beals, as the girl of Aldolpho’s dreams, and Sully Boyer, unforgettable as an old man who misses his own wife) the liberty to improvise when necessary.

Both the improvisation and the black and white are something of a tribute to director John Cassavetes, and it is from seeing him in such Cassavetes works as “Faces” and “Minnie and Moskowitz” that Rockwell got the idea of writing the part of Joe for veteran actor Seymour Cassel. It was one hell of an idea.

Tough, funny and furtive, simultaneously irresistible and impossible, a lover one minute, a potential killer the next, Cassel’s Joe is the kind of unstoppable performance that seems totally natural but has taken a lifetime of acting to prepare for. Never more than a breath away from self-indulgence, Cassel never overdoes it, never crosses the line into scenery-chewing for its own sake. Last year’s Sundance Film Festival gave him its first-ever special jury prize for acting, and a more deserved award you’ll never see.

“In the Soup,” for better and worse, is not all Cassel. It features a performance by Buscemi (who showcases another side of his considerable talent in the current “Reservoir Dogs”) good enough to dominate any other film and without which Cassel would not appear to such advantage. And, given its insubstantial, meandering nature, the picture has its share of story problems and ends up winding down more than ending. But it is Cassel’s wonderful performance that lingers after everything else fades. He is finally both the reason to see this film and the reason you won’t walk away disappointed.

‘In the Soup’

Steve Buscemi: Aldolpho Rollo

Seymour Cassel: Joe

Jennifer Beals: Angelica

Pat Moya: Dang

Will Patton: Skippy

Old Man: Sully Boyer

Released by Triton Pictures. Director Alexandre Rockwell. Producers Jim Stark, Hank Blumenthal. Executive producer Ryuichi Suzuki. Screenplay Alexandre Rockwell, Tim Kissel. Cinematographer Phil Parmet. Editor Dana Congdon. Music Mader. Production design Mark Friedberg. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Times-rated mature.


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