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Gangster Johnny Temple (Vincent Gallo) has just been shot down in broad daylight in Depression-era Yonkers. But The Funeral is an Abel Ferrara film, which means that the characters don’t talk like it’s the ’30s, or act like it either. The exotic lowlifes who populate Ferrara’s latest baroque downer (scripted by longtime collaborator Nicholas St. John) could hardly exist in a world before existentialismor before the gangster film was dosed with post-Godfather self-consciousness.
How self-conscious? Well, Johnny is shot just after leaving a matinee at the local moviehouse, under a marquee that advertises The Petrified Forest, the gangster hit of the dayand a movie whose Humphrey Bogart is actually the first star to appear on screen in Ferrara’s film. Johnny may not know he’s in a movie, but The Funeral sure does.
Of course, Johnny has an excuse if he doesn’t understand what’s going on here. He’s already dead when the opening credits roll, mourned at a wake at the home of oldest brother Ray (Christopher Walken) and his shellshocked wife Jean (Annabella Sciorra, who’s also one of the film’s associate producers). They’re joined by middle brother Chez (Christopher Penn) and his leery spouse Clara (Isabella Rossellini), as well as various children and hangers-on. What’s really crowding the house, though, is the abundant turnout of flashbacks demonstrating that a.) Johnny was a hothead with incongruous working-class-hero tendencies, b.) Chez is a depressive psycho haunted by his father’s suicide and his own self-destructive inclinations, and c.) Ray is a cold, ruthless killer who was initiated into murder as a sort of substitute bar mitzvah.
If Chez is a suicide waiting to happen, Johnny was auditioning for the role of murder victim. He indulged Communist rhetoric as he joined his brothers in their protection racket, and conspicuously kept company with the wife of another gangster, Gaspare (Benicio del Toro). Identifying and dealing with Johnny’s killer turns out to be anticlimactic, though. In this family, the most significant killer is within, crying to be set free of all those flashbacks in time for a final bloodbath.
As is customary with Ferrara, a crucifix leers at the events (Jonathan Demme’s Cousin Bobby appears as an out-of-place priest), and sex is actually more cruel than violence. The three brothers, whose real family name is Tempio, run a bar that becomes a tawdry stag-film-and-hookers binge after hours. It’s a place where the conquering heroes can be either beneficent or brutal, and sometimes both in a matter of moments. The Tempios destroy women, both hookers and wives, as fiercely as they war on themselves. Witness Jean, who suddenly laments that she went to college for two years and used to read books.
Ferrara and St. John have read some books too, but they’re as befuddled as Jean about what to do with that experience. Shot by Ken Kelsch, The Funeral looks good, and it’s not as bloated or misbegotten as Kansas City, Robert Altman’s recent visit to a similar time and place. The film’s visual cohesiveness, however, is no substitute for narrative or philosophical coherence. None of the mannered young (and not so young) tough guys in this cast bellow quite so wildly as Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, but both films are similarly addled. The Funeral tries to borrow some period cool from the likes of Billie Holliday, but such touches are swallowed by the film’s lower-Manhattan-hip posturing.
The Funeral is, off and on, a lot of things. It’s a showcase for young neo-Scorsesean wannabes like the ones celebrated in the tiresome Swingers, a family self-immolation in the manner of Faulkner at his most fevered, even an anachronistic New York riff on South Central message flicks like Boyz N the Hood: At one point, Ray ponders how New York’s ethnic thugs waste themselves fighting each other when they should be seizing control of corporate economic power. Soon enough, however, the gangster returns to the belligerent narcissism characteristic of the director’s films. “What about my sense of justice? What about me?” Ray demands of one hapless antagonist. The answers, as usual with Ferrara, are blowing in the idiot wind.
In less than a year, filmgoers have seen a wild variety of Shakespeares: Richard III as fascist-period piece, Romeo and Juliet as a sun-belt gang-banger romp, Richard III again as a documentary. Now Trevor Nunn has attempted an even more audacious stunt: playing Twelfth Night as a comedy. Most of this film is suitably dignified and earnest, but there are times when Nunn and such supporting cast members as Nigel Hawthorne, Ben Kingsley, and Richard E. Grant actually seem to be going for laughs.
The former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as the director as such Andrew Lloyd Webber classics as Cats and Starlight Express, Nunn has played the usual irrelevant theatrical tricks, outfitting his characters in Victorian garb and setting fictional Illyria in picturesque Cornwall. Such tactics, however, do little to enliven the performances by the film’s principals, which are uniformly dull.
For those who may have mistaken this mistaken-identity comedy for one of Shakespeare’s other mistaken-identity comedies, Twelfth Night is the one about twin siblings, Viola (Imogen Stubbs, who just happens to be Mrs. Nunn) and Sebastian (Stephen Mackintosh), who are separated in a shipwreck and who each assume that the other has perished. Viola decides to pose as Cesario, a young man, and becomes a trusted aide to Duke Orsino (Toby Stephens), who sends him/her to woo Countess Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter) on his behalf. Viola falls for Orsino as Olivia falls for Cesario. Fortunately, Sebastian then arrives to put the gender balance right.
Paralleling this lifeless tale is an earthier one, involving a plot against Olivia’s officious steward Malvolio (Hawthorne) by other members of the household, Sir Toby Belch (Mel Smith), Maria (Imelda Staunton), and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Grant). The commentary on the events is provided by Feste (Kingsley), the acerbic fool who seems to be in a separate dimension from the rest of the cast. (He even delivers one line in an Indian accent, and sings the play’s final song in a Celtic-rock style.)
Nunn has made all this “cinematic” with striking locations and 360-degree pans, and has added the occasional anachronistic gag. (Sebastian consults a Baedeker to Illyria.) He has failed, however, to strike a tone that reconciles film’s inherent realism with the plot’s theatrical contrivance. Stubbs’ pasted-on mustache, for example, does nothing to disguise Cesario’s sex, yet Carter’s Olivia is utterly fooled. She seems to be taking the whole thing quite seriously, whichas Twelfth Night definitively demonstratesis not a useful approach to farce.CP