Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Guskin/Jennings DOWN THE SHORE offers a thick slice of Jersey miserabilism

Whoa -- can any life get much more depressing and awful than that of the New Jersey-ites profiled in this new movie? Well, yes, I suppose -- if you are born into life under a nasty dictator, pick rice all your days, and then die at age 29. Otherwise, the folk we spend 93 minutes with in DOWN THE SHORE sure do take the cake. This film, which opens in Paris at a merry-go-round run by the hunky Edoardo Costa (an Italian actor playing a Frenchman whose accent and gift for languages seem to be multinational) sets up Signore Costa to meet a sweet American woman named Susan (played by Maria Dizzia) with a keen interest in merry-go-rounds.

Enjoy these first few minutes because, once the movie moves to New Jersey, any further moment of joy or happiness seems to be off the menu. This could work OK -- there's nothing wrong with a good, dark movie now and again, which, when done well, can be salutary -- but this one, written by Sandra Jennings and directed by Harold Guskin (at right), a fellow evidently best known for being a crack acting coach, has entirely too "manufactured" a feel to be taken seriously. This is particularly sad because the acting here is quite fine. Performances -- from everyone in view: in addition to the aforementioned, we have James Gandolfini (below, left) Famke Janssen, John Magaro and Joseph Pope (below, right) -- seem organic and anything but manufactured.

The story involves a couple of families with secrets that they are keeping from each other but which of course are eventually revealed. The not-very-good screenplay allows the characters to wander in and out and around each other until it's time for the spilling of the beans. In the headline, I call this Jersey miserabilism (as opposed to the British miserabilism, we got last year from Tyrannosaur) because it seems insistently pessimistic, with the characters and their plights chosen for maximum "downer" value.

Gandolfini plays the brother of Ms Dizzia, a fellow pining for the woman (Janssen) he's always loved but who married his best friend (Pope). Janssen's character (below) is herself pining for another life, as her marriage has come apart, producing only an autistic child (Magaro, above) who is a constant handful. I'll leave you to discover the joys of her hubby, the character played by Pope -- yikes! As for Dizzia, you don't want to know. Which leaves only Costa, that hunky Italian emigre to France and then America, who is the one silver lining in this mess.

When it's time for the big "reveal" and we get one confession after another, you'll want to yell "Stop!"  But then Costa, below, who has more or less been a Deus ex machina from the beginning, really goes into action. The movie does not tie up its loose ends, but loose or tight, after all this doom-and-gloom, the somewhat pat resolution seems far too neat.

Guskin's direction, both visually and in his handling of the actors, hones somewhat to the Cassavetes model: naturalistic and real, above all else (the cinematographer is Richard Rutkowski). The music, properly depressing, is by Andrea Morricone (son of Ennio), and the rest of the technical departments come through just fine.

Down the Shore, from Anchor Bay Entertainment, opens this coming Friday here in New York City for a brief run at the Quad Cinema, and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Noho 7 -- after which, a DVD and Blu-ray will be available rather quickly, I suspect.

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