Palookaville (Alan Taylor)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

I think it's time to place a moratorium on the Misguided Criminals genre, which has pretty much played itself out in recent years, and the release of Palookaville strikes me as the perfect opportunity to put it into effect: this film's criminals are just about as misguided as it's possible to be, and hence there's nowhere else for the genre to go. Based on stories by Italo Calvino, and directed by recent NYU grad Alan Taylor, Palookaville is an unusually sweet-natured and gentle entry, a film in which guns are only occasionally drawn and virtually never fired (and then they're fired into the air); the absence of genuine drama tends to make it feel a bit slight, but it also permits a depth of characterization that often eludes its flashier, bloodier brethren. Like most low-budget movies, Palookaville is actor-driven, and the three actors who play its bumbling protagonists -- William Forsythe, Vincent Gallo, and Adam Trese -- are the best reason to see it; their easy rapport with one another is totally convincing, and though all three are playing idiots, they skillfully make their characters recognizably different people (the film in effect becomes a catalogue of the varieties of idiocy) without ever crossing the line into caricature. These aspiring criminals are so inept that Palookaville stops just short of becoming an all-out farce -- change the tone slightly and you could be watching Nicolas Cage, Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey in Trapped in Paradise (not that I saw that, mind you) -- and it's to the credit of these terrific performers that the film's far-fetched events always remain plausible. Gallo (Arizona Dream, The Funeral) and Trese (Laws of Gravity, The Underneath) are relative newcomers to the screen, but odds are you've seen Forsythe many times, even if the name seems unfamiliar to you; from the dimwitted Evelle in Raising Arizona to the grotesque Flattop in Dick Tracy to the convict-turned-actor Burt the Booster in Weeds, this remarkable chameleon has never been less than memorable, but I don't believe he's ever played a role as human and as empathetic as his lonely, middle-aged, unemployed, dog-loving loser in this film. Each of these fellas is given a romantic partner, of course, and though it's unquestionably a Guy Movie, Palookaville is kinder to the female gender than most such films -- the women's roles, though smaller, are equally well-written, and nearly as ably performed. (Frances McDormand also turns up briefly, in order to demonstrate yet again that she shouldn't turn up briefly in otherwise naturalistic films.) The picture also benefits enormously from Rachel Portman's atypical (for this genre), loping score, which is among the year's finest. I enjoyed it, but I don't want to see another one like it for a while, okay?