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As economic theory, trickle-down proved to be voodoo, but it certainly applies to movies. The mindlessness afflicting Hollywood’s output for the past two decades has insidiously seeped into independent filmmaking, traditionally the province of thematic substance and formal innovation. Two new non-Hollywood features opening this week are depressingly independent of creativity and intelligence.
A year ago this month, the German comedy Maybe…Maybe Not opened in American theaters. Its plot: A straight man moves in with a gay man and has to convince everyone that he’s not homosexual. Now we have writer-director Tony Vitale’s Kiss Me, Guido, in which a straight man moves in with a gay man and has to convince everyone that he’s not homosexual. Unless I’ve started seeing double, somebody’s been ripped off.
The first half of Vitale’s movie is alienatingly doltish. Twenty-four-year-old Frankie Zito (singer/model/soap star Nick Scotti), who works in a Bronx pizza parlor and dreams of Pacino-De Niro-Stallone acting stardom, decides it’s time to move to Manhattan after finding his macho brother Pino (Anthony DeSando) and his girlfriend rattling pans in the kitchen. He responds to a West Village apartment-share ad on the boneheaded assumption that “GWM” means “guy with money.” (Kiss Me, Guido is billed as a “Redeemable Features” production, but could any film survive such an asinine premise?) Warren (Anthony Barrile), the gay white man in question, is an out-of-work actor who has been dumped by his lover and can no longer afford his rent. Although divided by class, culture, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, the pair become friends, an alliance tested when Frankie’s old-world Catholic family unexpectedly shows up for the opening night of his debut in a pretentious off-off-Broadway gay play called Fire in the Hole.
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In the film’s press material, producer Ira Deutchman observes that “Kiss Me, Guido was one of the most appealing, commercial screenplays I’d read in a long time. To me, it read like something that a mainstream Hollywood studio would make in a minute.” Vitale appears to have written it in a minute, too. By the movie’s midpoint, he has depleted the stockpile of Italian-American and gay stereotypes. Brother Pino, a deadbeat, homophobic bedroom cowboy, crosses himself when he passes churches. His corseted mother Josephina (Antonia Rey) bellows, flails her arms, and faints when her wishes are defied. Warren’s limp-wristed, bleach-blond best friend Terry (Craig Chester) minces about, hissing waspish Eve Arden-Thelma Ritter one-liners (“You remind me of an infection I once had”). Dakota (Christopher Lawford), Warren’s slimy ex, is a smooth-talking opportunist who can’t keep his dick in his pants. As a scenarist, Vitale proves to be an equal opportunity offender.
Having exhausted every applicable stock character and situation, Kiss Me, Guido improves in its closing reels. The bond between naive, sweet-natured Frankie and warmhearted Warren, strengthened after they survive a fag-bashing assault, is made palpable by Scotti’s ingenuousness and Barrile’s amiability. Claudia Raschke’s vivid camerawork is consistently pleasing, especially a radiantly lit late-afternoon riverside sequence in which the new roommates rehearse for their play. But no acting or technical contributions, however accomplished, can redeem the film’s dopey, schematic sitcom scenario. At the fade-out, Frankie and Warren accept each other’s differences and realize that their friendship is more valuable and nurturing than their relationships with their peers. By then, the movie’s target audience, presumably Guidos and gays, is likely to be so turned off that Vitale’s celebration of brotherhood, capped by a thumping disco version of the anthemic “I Am What I Am,” will fall on deaf ears.
Box of Moonlight’s sweeping, witty opening sequence makes promises that writer-director Tom DiCillo fails to keep. An aerial camera soars over woodlands, rivers, and meadows, then pauses to observe a deer poised at the end of a forest before ending at a remote construction site. The kicker of this panoramic prologue is that the deer is obviously fake, a baffling detail that isn’t explained for nearly an hour.
But once the narrative begins, DiCillo recycles the threadbare square-guy-liberated-by-hip-guy plotline that filmmakers have been milking for decades. (Last month’s version was the grungy Dream With the Fishes.) John Turturro stars as Albert Fountain, an uptight electrical engineer supervising the construction of a rural windshield-wiper plant. Robotic and humorless, he’s isolated from and mocked by his crew. (Invited to join them one evening after work, he has to rehearse spontaneity in his hotel room.) Experiencing the onslaught of midlife crisishe discovers his first gray hair and has disturbing visions of water, coffee, and kids on bicycles moving backwardsAlbert is caught off-guard when his project is suddenly canceled.
Instead of returning to his wife and son in the Chicago suburbs, Al decides to linger in the hinterlands, devoting the Independence Day (nudge, nudge) weekend to an attempt to reawaken his inner child. Renting a car, he returns to the lakeside resort he visited in his youth, only to discover that the dilapidated retreat has been poisoned by chemical wastes. A chance encounter with the Kid (Sam Rockwell), a coonskin cap-wearing new-age hippie who steals lawn ornaments and resells them from his ramshackle house, frees his fettered spirit. Under the Kid’s anarchistic influence, Al indulges in nude bathing, vandalizes the abandoned construction site, swipes tomatoes, drops acid, and romps with a dismissed phone-sex operator. Regenerated, he returns to suburbia where he shows more sensitivity to the needs of his family.
After his 1991 debut feature, the irksomely whimsical Johnny Suede, DiCillo hit his stride with Living in Oblivion, a sharp, funny insider’s view of the vicissitudes of low-budget filmmaking. His latest project, which was intended to follow Johnny Suede but failed to attract sufficient backing, is a big step backward, an overdose of pixie dust fatally marred by miscasting. With his squirrely eyes and toothy overbite, Turturro has proved effective in supporting parts (Do the Right Thing, Fearless), but his jackhammer eccentricity pulverizes leading roles (Barton Fink, Mac). A little Turturro goes a long way; his point-blank acting style lacks the requisite lightness and subtlety to depict a man in perplexed transition. His blunt, almost cartoonish Al emphasizes everything embarrassingly obvious and trite about the character, who appears in virtually every shot.
The rest of the cast is more credible. Rockwell is appealingly callow as the irresponsibly childlike Kid, a mixture of Thoreau and Dennis the Menace, whose parting gift to Al is the titular box that captures moonbeams. Catherine Keener and Lisa Blount contribute some buoyant moments as sisters who share a Fourth of July fling with the oddly matched buddies, and Annie Corely and Alexander Goodwin make the most of their thankless roles as Al’s abandoned wife and son.
DiCillo is an accomplished technician; Box of Moonlight displays a firmer command of composition and editing than most major studio pictures with unlimited resources, and contains some arresting surrealist images, among them a poetic throwaway shot of a burning armchair in a litter-strewn abandoned lot. But his ideas are cloyingly fey and banal. When Al recites his Gumpian bromides”Life is a drive down the road” and “Life is a tomato off the vine”one wonders whether an overdose of moonshine has addled the wits of a director who, last time out, displayed so much promise.CP