PALOOKAVILLE (1995) ***
Three unemployed, longtime buddies decide to resort to crime--strictly temporarily.Likable and most unprofessional, in these high-tech times they use primitive tools to try burglarizing a jewelry store. Instead, they break into the adjoining bakery, where Jerry keeps gobbling pastries and stuffing donuts inside his shirt. The sequence is treated with sweet absurdism, close to Inspector Clouseau territory.
The protagonists' dwellings are low-income, cramped quarters. Interiors and exteriors could, by and large, have been settings of past decades.Even the pals' only car is an old clunker.
Handsome Jerry has a kid and a breadwinner wife. Betty is black. This helps situate the film in recent times and adds a warm element as absolutely no special point is made of it.
Sid, whose spouse left him, lives with two shaggy, smelly dogs. Saturnine-looking Russ lives with his mother, his sister, and her husband, a sullen cop. Russ occasionally visits a friendly prostitute (Frances McDormand in a cameo appearance) and regularly goes to bed with young, pretty Laurie, who lives across the back alley and dreams of California.Visits are easy as both have street-level bedroom windows.
After bungling their first job, the buddies plot others, with Russ as the self-appointed brains and leader. Their discussions at their usual cafe can be quite funny. One man dreams up the semi-legitimate notion of an unlicensed car service for older people who can hardly afford cabs, assuming these do show up. The smell of Sid's mutts, as they too travel in the car,quickly sinks that scheme.
A somewhat forced incident suggests a plot involving an armored car. The plan is hare-brained, the preparations dumbly funny. They include watching a video of the 1950 movie "Armored Car Robbery" -- a pretty good film but absurd in "Palookaville"'s context. The execution is comical. Connected, unconnected and disconnected episodes flesh out the story, the characters, the milieu
"Palookaville" is an amalgam loosely based on three early short stories by Italo Calvino who wrote of the plight of ordinary Italians in the post-World War II years.The atmosphere gets convincingly transferred to the USA now.There is also the inspiration from the familiar Italian satire "Big Deal on Madonna Street" (1958) which was about a gang of incompetent amateur thieves. (The cast included Marcello Mastroianni, then known but not yet made a major star by Fellini movies).
The director's first feature and the scriptwriter's first produced screenplay, "Palookaville" won the Kodak Prize for Best First Feature at the 1995 Venice Film Festival. Some inexperience shows in a certain lack of clarity about people and places. I am no lover of artificial, all-explaining expositions but I appreciate what might be called the Hitchcockian introduction, where you don't have to wonder who is who, where, and what to whom. And while the main music theme is witttily Italianate, it gets repetitious.
Otherwise, there are fine gags (the suspecting cop and brother-in-law seen sniffing Russ' pants by Laurie across the alley is a classic moment) and no villains. The general shabbiness is,without stressing it, a comment on financially depressed little people in America today. Yet the overall mood keeps us smiling with its un-gloppy affection for the three losers.