Handsome Harry is the story of five sailors who beat up a sixth thirty years before the move starts, a somewhat ambiguous time line which only makes sense if the present day story takes place in the 1990’s. Why the five sailors beat up the sixth is not revealed for about a third of the way through, but if you don’t know right off, you really need to get out more. There are two additional secrets, one about the title character’s relationship with the sixth sailor, as well as who was the one responsible for dropping a weight on the sailor’s hand thereby stopping him from pursuing a promising career as a pianist. But again, if you can’t figure these out as well, you really, really, really need to get out more. This is often the problem with a movie whose emotional impact depends on unrevealed twists: the surprises are usually so obvious there’s often little else to do but wait around to see if you were right. It’s not just the plot turns that are obvious here; everything about it, the dialog, the acting, the directing (the screenplay is by Nicholas T. Proferes and the direction by Bette Gordon) all has that on the nose feel about it as if the film were made by a telegraph company. Proferes’ script is very since and his heart is in the right place, but neither he nor Gordon seem to demonstrate much skill, subtlety or deftness of touch in getting across their vision in a satisfactory way. The plot also lacks forward momentum. The story begins when Harry (played by Jamey Sheridan) gets a call from one of the other sailors, Thomas (played by the always reliable Steve Buscemi). Thomas is dying from cancer and is afraid of going to hell if he doesn’t get forgiveness from Kagan, the sixth sailor. Thomas asks Harry to bring Kagan to his deathbed, but instead Harry goes himself and Thomas dies without the peace he needs. Harry then takes it upon himself to search out the other three sailors as well as Kagan. Why? Well, now that Thomas’s dead, Harry doesn’t really have a very compelling reason. Proferes comes up with the idea that Harry now wants to find out who dropped the weight on Kagan’s hand, not a particularly convincing motivation, especially since the easiest way to find this out is to go directly to the horse’s mouth and ask Kagan. And with this, the forward momentum of the plot really comes to a halt as Harry pinballs from one of his old shipmates to another (and again, since the audience should already know the answer to Harry’s question, it feels more like waiting around just to see if we guessed right). The ex-shipmates are played by John Savage, Aidan Quinn and Titus Welliver, all of whom play people who have grown up well to do, but extremely unhappy and not because of what they did to Kagan, but just because that’s what happens to the bourgeoisie in movies. The real problem here, though, is that none of these characters are particularly interesting or tell us anything about anything. Because of this, it seems to take forever for Harry to get to Kagan. Kagan is played by Campbell Scott who gives the most compelling performance in the movie. He strides forth with an unnerving quiet that pulls one in. It would be nice if one could say these last few minutes could make up for the rest of the movie, but as good as Scott is, they really don’t.
As is mentioned in other areas of this blog, I make a living reading scripts for a production company and a few contests. I am always on the lookout for that oddly compelling script that is quirky and different, that is its own thing. These sorts of screenplays quickly stand out, mainly because the characters are so interesting and compelling, but a bit off, and the situations they find themselves in are also interesting and compelling, but a bit off. Let’s hear it for movies that are a bit off. City Island, written by the director Raymond De Felitta, is just that sort of screenplay, the one that often makes it worthwhile wading through the tons of other screenplays that barely rise above being mediocre. The basic set up is winning in itself. Andy Garcia plays Vince Rizzo, a prison guard (excuse me, corrections officer) who is taking an acting class, but is so embarrassed about it that he tells his wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies, looking like she’s having the time of her life playing someone straight out of Goodfellas) that he’s at a poker game. Vince is given an exercise where he must reveal his most embarrassing secret to an acting partner, here Molly (played luminously by the always superb and eponymous Emily Morton, who if she wasn’t in it, Emily Watson, Kelly McDonald or Samantha Morton would have been, thank god for actresses who have humility and don’t feel they need to be the lead in everything they do). His secret is that the newest prisoner at his job is actually his son, though his son doesn’t know it because Vince left his mother before he was even born. Vince then takes the son Tony (played with great pecs and arms by Steven Straight) into his home without telling him or Joyce what is really going on. Add to this a daughter Tanya, who is secretly stripping in order to earn enough money to go back to college because she lost her scholarship when pot was found in her dorm room, and a son Vince, Jr., an adolescent just discovering that he is really, really, really, I mean, really turned on by hefty women (a situation that is dealt with refreshingly because De Felitta doesn’t exploit it for fat jokes, but mines humor from the situation without passing judgment), and you have the makings of a fun farce and, indeed, this a plot in which every time the story takes a turn you find yourself going “oh, this can’t be good”, or “Uh oh”, or “that can’t turn out well”. Once Tony moves into the house, the movie becomes basically a variation on the classic film Boudu Saved From Drowning in which a homeless person is saved and taken in by the head of a middle class family (you may remember it as the enjoyable remake Down and Out in Beverly Hills). Boudu thereupon upends the bourgeois pretensions of the household. This perhaps betrays the main weakness of City Island. Tony is never a threat to the pretensions of the Rizzo family; he is in fact, their savior (you know De Felitta is going to play it safe when he doesn’t have Joyce and Tony have sex and doesn’t even entertain the notion of Tony and Tanya getting it on). So though the script is quirky, fun and a rollicking good time, it’s also a bit safe, a bit sitcomy. It flirts with really saying something dangerous, but in the end settles for the old saw, honesty is the best policy. But don’t let that stop you from seeing it. Maybe the movie does pull its punches, but it’s still having a quirky, odd good time.