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Aging mobsters just want a warm place to sleep in The Crew

Turns out that when goodfellas don't die -- when they don't get shot or blown up in a car or beaten to death with a baseball bat -- they move to Miami's South Beach. They drive tour buses for the elderly, take orders at Burger King, give dime-a-dance lessons to old women in need of a shoulder to lean on, and apply makeup to corpses who pass through revolving-door funeral homes. They eat early dinners and play card games and tan their leathery hides and recall their glory days, always wondering how such once-powerful men as they wound up counting the days, minutes and seconds until they finally become extinct. "I thought we'd be dead," moans Bobby Bartellemeo (Richard Dreyfuss), sitting on the decaying front terrace of South Beach's Raj Majal hotel, watching women and men with big tits roller-skating past the gangster dinosaur exhibit. It's hell to be a mobster collecting unemployment in the old-jokes home.

Such is the premise of The Crew, otherwise known as So-soFellas. They're all here: Joey "Bats" Pistella (Burt Reynolds, wearing his sleekest toupee in years), Mike "The Brick" Donatelli (Dan Hedaya, his whole body covered in five o'clock shadow), Tony "Mouth" Donato (Seymour Cassel, keeping shut) and Bobby "The Jew" (Dreyfuss). On the periphery are names you've heard a thousand times: Fat Paulie, Nicky the Nose, Jerry the Hammer, Tommy Shakes, Tony the Torch, Louie the Lip and other refugees from Martin Scorsese films. We've seen the "before" picture countless times -- the stoic voice-overs, the baseball-bat brutality, the guy in the trunk, the hijacked truck. Here, for the first time, is the winsome "after," the portrait of a mobster as a weary old man trying to keep from getting kicked out of his retirement home.

For a few moments, The Crew is a slight but charming kick. It's even a little sad, if only because in the film's opening moments, we're allowed to see these four men in their 1968 prime, cruising toward mobster immortality in their red Caddy convertible. Thirty-two years later, they still drive the same car, only the roof is torn and the hubcaps are missing; the same could be said for Bobby, Joey, Mike and Tony, who are about to get kicked out of their apartment to make way for the trendies lured to Miami Beach by the promise of bumping into Madonna. Now, the only thing Joey Bats has to get pissed off about is his job at Burger King: "Lady," Reynolds sneers through perfect teeth to one demanding customer, "special orders do upset us." He'd beat her over the head, given half a chance.

Grumpy old mobsters (from left): Reichard Dreyfuss, Seymour Cassel, Burt Reynolds and Dan Hedaya
Robert Zuckerman
Grumpy old mobsters (from left): Reichard Dreyfuss, Seymour Cassel, Burt Reynolds and Dan Hedaya

The trailer hints that The Crew is yet another of those films in which old farts breathe a last gasp by committing a crime that gives them back their manhood. It is, to say the least, misleading. When the "plot" kicks in -- when the foursome steals a corpse from the funeral home to fake a mob murder in the lobby of the Raj Majal to scare off the rent-hiking carpetbaggers -- it happens so suddenly and inexplicably that it feels like an accident. But it gets the ball rolling, and it heads downhill so fast it's almost dizzying. As it turns out, the corpse was the father of a ditsy South American drug lord, Raul Ventana (Miguel Sandoval), who seeks revenge on the men he believes killed his papa. And Miami detective Olivia Neal (The Matrix's Carrie-Anne Moss) suspects the four grumpy old men of the crime, if only because she has "a feeling" about them, especially Bobby, who, as it turns out, knew her a very long time ago.

The Crew ends up feeling like soft-boiled Elmore Leonard (actually, runny Elmore Leonard) as the story goes from kicky to kicked-in-the-head; appropriately, it was produced by Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed Get Shorty and created the ABC television series Maximum Bob, both based on Leonard novels. Michael Dinner directs like a Sonnenfeld acolyte, whipping around the camera during a scene in which a rat with its tail on fire runs through two South Beach mansions, burning both to the ground. Dinner possesses a touch light enough to keep the audience from puzzling too long over story holes gaping enough to swallow Fat Paulie. Somehow, in 90 minutes, Dinner and screenwriter Barry Fanaro manage to include subplots about a blackmailing stripper (Jennifer Tilly), her yenta stepmother (Lainie Kazan), a sleazy cop on the take (Jeremy Piven, playing Bruce Willis) and Ventana's gang that can't shoot straight.

The Crew is, finally, a movie about movies, an echo that works only on an audience familiar enough with the clichés and conventions to fill in the blanks. It's hard to believe Reynolds, Dreyfuss, Hedaya and Cassel are gangsters shooting blanks; they're more vibrant than anyone else in the movie, larger-than-life shadows even at their so-called sunset. And it's a weird, nonviolent kind of gangster film, one in which the bad guys are shot in the leg, good guys take it in the shoulder, and everyone says "freakin'" when they want to utter a different f-word. It's Elmore Leonard, all right -- for the large-type crowd, one that prefers to have its "dirty" clean and silly.

 
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