Palookaville is an engaging trifle about three unemployed buddies who are just desperate enough to consider larceny as a means of temporary employment. "I'm not talking about a life of crime here," one of them says during a brainstorming session. "I'm talking about a momentary shift in lifestyles." Even before the opening credits end, however, the movie makes it clear that these guys would do much better to pursue other career opportunities.
During the opening minutes, the three would-be robbers smash through the rear wall of a building that houses a jewelry store. Unfortunately, they wind up in a bakery shop instead. Even more unfortunately, this failure doesn't keep them from plotting another heist.
Playwright-turned-screenwriter David Epstein has set his shaggy-dog story in contemporary Jersey City, New Jersey. But many of the characters and situations are drawn from short stories written by Italo Calvino in the late 1950s. Calvino wrote about ordinary fellows who struggled to make ends meet in the devastation of post-World War II Italy. The situation isn't quite so dire in economically depressed Jersey City, but the cross-cultural translation works surprisingly smoothly. Palookaville also bears a strong kinship to another Italian work: Big Deal on Madonna Street, Mario Monicelli's classic 1957 comedy about four petty criminals who hatch a "scientific" scheme to rob a neighborhood pawn shop. It is worth noting that no less a director than the late, great Louis Malle tried to update Monicelli's film in 1984 as Crackers, a disastrous Americanized remake that brought out the worst in all parties involved. The failure of that ill-starred project makes the modest achievement of Palookaville seem, if only by contrast, all the more impressive.
The three lead characters are longtime friends who are painfully aware of being stuck in ruts. Russ (Vincent Gallo), the unofficial leader of the pack, lives at home with his overbearing mother, his sister -- and Ed (Gareth Williams), his surly brother-in-law, who just happens to be a police officer. Ed isn't particularly bright, but he's sufficiently observant to note that, on the very evening that someone broke into a bakery shop, Russ has a suspicious amount of powdered sugar on his clothing. But, fortunately for Russ, Ed can't do anything about this, since he makes the discovery during a chance encounter with his brother-in-law in the apartment of June (Frances McDormand), a prostitute who is very familiar with both men. If he were to arrest Russ, Ed would have to explain to his superiors -- and, of course, his wife -- just where his suspicions were aroused.
Russ's partners in crime, Jerry (Adam Trese) and Sid (William Forsythe), are every bit as aimless as their buddy. Sid, a divorced mechanic, is a mopey lost soul who lives alone in a rented house with two dogs. He is kind to his pets, but much too indulgent: He doesn't want to bathe them during the winter, for fear of making them uncomfortably cold. Trouble is, he insists on taking the foul-smelling animals with him almost everywhere he goes. One of the movie's funniest scenes has Sid pretending to be vision-impaired in order to board a bus with his pets. When the driver questions why any blind man would need two seeing-eye dogs, Sid has to think fast. "The little one," he tells the driver, "is in training." Not surprisingly, Sid is ordered off the bus.
Jerry, the only married man in the group, tries to convince his friends that crime doesn't pay. But he is forced to reconsider his options when his wife loses her job at a local supermarket. (Actually, she is fired after Jerry punches out her boss for making a pass at her.) No longer able to rely on his wife's paycheck, Jerry agrees to take part in Russ's half-baked scheme to hold up an armored car.
Palookaville is the sort of leisurely comedy that relies more on whimsy and eccentricity than pratfalls or punch lines. The movie generates few big laughs, but it often gives the audience cause to smile in amusement. At one point, the three men decide to research the finer points of criminal activity by renting an old movie, Armored Car Robbery. But while they watch the video in Russ's room, every other member of the household wanders by. And, of course, they, too, want to watch the movie, much to the discomfort of the three conspirators.
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First-time feature director Alan Taylor has cast Palookaville extremely well. Forsythe, an actor best known for villainous roles, is particularly good as the sad-eyed Sid, a shy fellow who doesn't know quite what to make of Enid (Bridgit Ryan), the ditzy young woman he meets in a secondhand clothing store. She is so taken with him that she doesn't say anything about his malodorous dogs. Sid is attracted to Enid, but he has serious doubts about her stability: The first time she sends him a love letter, she includes the combination to the safe where she works. Being a gentleman, Sid patiently explains to her that, if the store were robbed, she would be considered a prime suspect.
As you might expect, when the three friends finally do get around to robbing the armored car, everything that possibly can go wrong does. What happens next, however, is genuinely surprising, and altogether satisfying. Palookaville is a minor work, but it has a melancholy charm that makes it a pleasant diversion.
Directed by Alan Taylor. With William Forsythe, Vincent Gallo, Adam Trese and Frances McDormand.