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Brooklyn Rules
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by Jay Seaver

"Follows the rules to the letter."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: Three pre-teen kids find the body of a murdered man in the prologue of "Brooklyn Rules", which could be the start of an interesting mystery. Instead, it's mainly a method for one character to get a dog and another to get a gun. We've all heard the saw about introducing a gun in the first act, we know what almost has to come, so it's a matter of keeping us entertained in the meantime.

The film does all right on account. The kids we see in 1974 grow up to be Michael (Freddie Prinze Jr.), Carmine (Scott Caan), and Bobby (Jerry Ferrara). Michael kept the gun, but he's a pre-law student at Columbia University now, while Carmine is the one who has fallen into the orbit of neighborhood mob boss Caesar (Alec Baldwin). Bobby kept the beagle, and has grown up to be a sweet but not too bright young man trying to earn enough money to marry his longtime girlfriend Amy (Monica Keena). There's a new girl in Michael's life, too, a classmate (Mena Suvari) from Connecticut who find the rough around the edges Michael edgy but, of course, doesn't fully understand the kind of world he lives in.

It's familiar, but director Michael Corrente and his cast are doing better than going through the motions. The boys are mainly collections of easily-identifiable characteristics - Carmine's vain, Bobby's cheap - but Terence Winter gives them fun smartass dialog to bounce off each other and the cast whips it back and forth in a way that makes it genuinely sound like old friends busting on each other without malice. Too often, this sort of interaction sounds like nastiness under the guise of it being good-natured ribbing. Some of the voice-over bits given to Michael are a little wonky - for every great line like Michael's description of how his ability to bullshit and complete lack of scruples will make him an excellent lawyer, there's a cliché'd bit about how everyone from the neighborhood has a soft spot for Sinatra.

The interaction between the leads is better than the sum of the individual parts, but none of the leads acquit themselves poorly. Yes, even Freddie Prinze Jr. I can't think of many specific performances where he's been a net positive, but his weird delivery fits here; he's convincingly stuck between two worlds. A lot of people will say that Scott Caan's turn here reminds them of his father's Sonny Corleone, and they'll be right, but it's not an impersonation. Caan's got a knack for making Carmine funny with his exaggerated primping and goofy 1980s wardrobe, but even when Carmine is being used to goof Wedding Singer-style on how tacky the eighties were, he doesn't feel like he's doing parody. Ferrara is the clown with the most random traits - he's cheap, he can't see a church or madonna or cross without praying, he's a cinematic encyclopedia but pretty dim where anything else is concerned - but he makes the character a real person.

They've got a decent enough supporting cast to work with. Alec Baldwin puts a veneer of charm over his character's psychopathy, and manages it with just the right balance so that the audience understands why Carmine is drawn to him while Michael would, as he puts it, much rather Caesar Manganaro not know he exists. It's a nice reminder of how good Alec Baldwin can be; many actors have missed the sweet spot on this sort of role. Mena Suvari isn't quite so memorable as Michael's new girlfriend Ellen; the role calls for her to be not quite as made of plastic as the hair, makeup, and costume people present her, and she manages that. Monica Keena portrays a cooler girlfriend in about half the time on screen.

The story is quite pointedly set in the 1980s, which makes it a little stilted at times. Not so much because of the occasional bits that exist just to point out the decade in which the film takes place or the goofy costumes - Winter and Corrente are generally pretty good at backing off before the growing-up-in-a-crappy-neighborhood nostalgia gets laid on too thick (and I've got a very low tolerance for that). There's just something that doesn't quite work about setting it during the actual gang wars that went on at the time that doesn't quite work for me. It's not just the way that putting the fictional Manganaro on the same diagram as John Gotti blurs the line between fact and fiction, but the way the movie briefly stops so that Michael's narration can fill us in on the actual events - it's as if the writer was so focused on authenticity that he briefly forgot that this level of detail wasn't really necessary.

Of course, I'm committing the same sort of sin by focusing on that detail. Winter's idea of fitting his coming of age story into real events is, along with the chemistry between Prinze, Caan, and Ferrara, a big part of what sets "Brooklyn Rules" apart from the dozens of other movies about friends growing up in gangster-infested neighborhoods that come out every year. As much as Corrente protested before the screening that "Brooklyn Rules" isn't just one of those movies, it sort of is, though a pretty good example of the genre.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=15236&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/05/07 12:59:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Independent Film Festival of Boston For more in the 2007 Independent Film Festival of Boston series, click here.

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USA
  18-May-2007 (R)
  DVD: 18-Sep-2007

UK
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