A State of Mind
by Michael W. Robbins, Wendy Palitz
(a discounted Paperback from Amazon)
"... Career choices for a poor kid from Brooklyn were slim-sports, the mob or entertainment. While laboring at a Garment District cosmetics wholesaler, ..."
You mention "Brooklyn" and you think tough, as in the mob, the mafiosi. You think heavy accents, "Brookynese," a rat race culture, dog-eat-dog competition for power, political corruption, protection payoffs, bullets, assassination, crime in general. Could a law-abiding citizen survive the lead flying around? This story suggests the possibility, but not without said citizens being affected by (and belonging to) the prevailing culture... and abiding by its rules.
Respect and power are two parts of the same standard. He who has the most of both rules.
With narration by one of the characters, we're taken into the lives of three friends whose tight bond in 1985 has remained constant since childhood when they drew together as neighbors and school buddies. Their common Italian birth lines form a natural basis of mutual understanding however unalike they are as individuals. It's a case of the attraction of opposites making for the profoundest, longest lasting connections.
Before we get a good look at these guys, we see two of them in a prologue shooting a man. We then flash back for the developments that bring us up to this moment and its meaning.
Michael Turner (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), provides the perspective with his narration, and reveals a solid grasp of priorities by thinking independently and rejecting any easy pathways to success through crime. He's not above publically scamming his professor about a test he wasn't prepared for, so as not to compromise his goal of entering pre-law at Columbia University. And, all to the good when his little ploy attracts the attention of beautiful Ellen (Mena Suvari, "Caffeine," "American Beauty"), a class lady well above his pedigree in life.
What's troubling Michael is narcissistic pal Carmine Mancuso's (Scott Caan), increasing alliance with local mob boss Caesar Manganaro (Alec Baldwin, "The Departed") ever since he stood in awe witnessing his first taste of raw cruelty when the mobster inflicted a brutal beating on a man. The boys were teenagers then. Now, Michael sees his swaggering friend's path to a life of crime as a one-way street to quick, violent death. Living where such activity thrives makes it difficult to avoid, but Michael demonstrates his determination to stand apart when he accepts a probable loss in a card game before accepting Caesar's offer of a loan. He also gains a notch of respect from a mobster who knows a thing or two about a man's spine.
The third component of the band is pudgy, good natured Bobby Canzoneri (Jerry Ferrara) who is primarily known for his penny-pinching ways. He's a guy who just won't be "taken" by those who seek to make an unfair profit off him. He'll make his pals walk a half mile to a club before handing his keys off to a valet parker. When it comes to negotiating for a diamond engagement ring, pity the poor jeweler's bottom line when he comes up against Bobby.
The screenplay by Emmy winning writer Terence Winter ("The Sopranos") does a fine and credible job of keeping an engaging balance between his disparate trio of ambition, self adulation and cheapness, allowing the characteristics the full affect of expression through humor and in dealing with the harshness of a John Gotti world. The climactic dramatic episode is also well drawn from the annals of mob hierarchy and their rules to maintain the authority of credibility. Director Michael Corrente maintains a comfortable level of macho and down-to-earth familiarity with his actors' Brooklyn inclined accents and styles of delivery.
The character types are well defined by the ensemble and a dazzling Suvari fits well into a role that might have gone to Heather Graham or others without particularly distinguishing it. Baldwin, on the other hand, could have stolen the show if the script and his own aesthetic discipline had allowed him to go for it. His is surely the most commanding performance within these frames but Prinze carries the movie's essential emotional load respectably well.
The soundtrack incorporates a broad sampling of music of the era to good advantage.
Because the hyper level of exaggerated drama one expects in a mob movie is held at a consistently subdued level by the relative exclusion of Scorsese-like episodes of violence, a thoughtfully satisfying form of drama is in store for the more serious filmgoer. This is achieved through its dependence on characters living their lives apart from the pervading threats of violence and the intrusion by its perpetrators. There's no attempt here to make these heroes into mythic practitioners of devastation.
Rather, these are lives on a level that approximate our own. The modesty of the range pays off with a fuller experience than movies that come with a boost of high-test adrenalin. The penalty for moderation, though, is likely to come at the boxoffice.
~~ Jules Brenner