"Twenty Bucks" (selected theaters) began as a script written by screenwriter Endre Bohem in 1935 and then was passed on to his son Leslie more than four decades later. Although largely reworked, the scenario still has a charmingly musty quality. It's contemporary yet it harkens back to a simpler way of feeling.
The film, directed by Keva Rosenfeld, follows a $20 bill as it's passed from hand to hand. Most of the bill's owners never meet, and yet they are bound by the transactions. The disparate vignettes interconnect as a series of raffish, O. Henry-ish stories with a common thread--in each case the twenty transforms its bearer.
This free-form ensemble piece doesn't have the savvy or the breadth that a Robert Altman might have brought to it. (On the other hand, judging from "Short Cuts," Altman would be too sour to realize its humor.) Rosenfeld, who comes from the documentary arena, shoots things very simply, with a minimum of fuss. The half dozen or so stories dovetail in ways just improbable enough to seem real. "Twenty Bucks" (rated R) points up the democracy of cash: One day you're owned by a street urchin, the next by a millionaire.
Linda Hunt plays the street urchin who first finds the twenty, then has it snatched by a skateboarder. As the stories develop, we encounter a spiffy petty thief (Christopher Lloyd) and his pick-up accomplice (Steve Buscemi), a New Age curio shop owner (Gladys Knight) who mails the bill to her grandson (Kamal Holloway) as a birthday present, a young writer (Elisabeth Shue) whose aspirations are rejected by her father (Alan North), a working-class kid (Brendan Fraser) who attempts to marry rich and gets the twenty as a token gift from his future father-in-law (George Morfogen), and the stripper (Melora Walters) at the kid's bachelor party who gets the bill stuffed in her G-string.
Not all these stories amount to much, but the best of them, like the Lloyd-Buscemi confab, have a wonderful strangeness. Lloyd gives one of his best screen performances: His hold-up man is well-tailored and curt, more like an assistant bank manager than a robber. He's got everything figured out but his serene look is, on closer inspection, totally ga-ga. He's the bandit as gentlemanly control freak, and Buscemi, slobbery and inept, is his perfect foil.
There are other wonderful moments, like the final scene between Fraser and his prospective father-in-law, or the bachelor party sequence where the bemused stripper realizes she's pranced into a wake. "Twenty Bucks" (rated R for language and a scene of sexuality) bops along lackadaisically but it comes full circle by the end. It's the kind of scruffy fable that doesn't usually get made anymore--at least not since 1935.
Linda Hunt: Angeline
Brendan Fraser: Sam
Gladys Knight: Mrs. McCormac
Elisabeth Shue: Emily Adams
A Triton Pictures release. Director Keva Rosenfeld. Producer Karen Murphy. Screenplay by Leslie and Endre Bohem. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Editor Michael Ruscio. Costumes Susie DeSanto. Music David Robbins. Production design Joseph T. Garrity. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (language and sexuality).