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Ash Tuesday
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by Erik Childress

"Lives that will live in infamy?"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2003 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: Time passes and the tragic consequences of the day becomes tomorrow's metaphor. It will be years before Michael Bay's offspring will tackle 9/11 head-on as a mournful action picture that begins with love, bridges with disaster and climaxes with the "liberation" of Iraq. Until that day we hope never comes, while the stunned first tried to erase the memory, the hands of the clock progress and the future introspective can linger the most infamous of days to tell their own stories. Much like Spike Lee's big-screen version of David Benioff's 25th Hour, Ash Tuesday didn't begin as a tale about 9/11 but it probably helped enrich it.

What started out as another New York ensemble piece of characters trying to get their lives back together, was now faced with a realistic element rather than superficial eccentricities. Screenwriter Tony Spiridakis provides himself with one of the larger roles as Punch, a cab driver whose wife took all his furniture and is bothered every morning by a group of spiritual onlookers who believe they can see the face of the Virgin Mary amidst the ashes that still remain on his car. Punch becomes our narrator for most of the film, having some connection to nearly all the other players.

In a local bar, the introverted bartender Samantha (Jennifer Carpenter) watches as a continuing domestic dispute between the exes, Judy (Nicole Hansen) and Elliott (Tony Goldwyn) is broken up by Greg (Adam Ferrara), a police officer with a few skeletons of his own. The dive's entertainment for the evening will be provided by punkette Gina Mascara (a terrific Pauley Perrette) who believes she sees something in the barkeep that may have gone unchecked for too long. Also roving around the neighborhood is the homeless poet, Karl (Giancarlo Esposito) who has become fascinated by the agoraphobic rock critic, Liz (Janeane Garofalo) who hasn't stepped a foot out of her apartment since she witnessed one of the planes on its way to destiny.

Much of what sets up Ash Tuesday and its neighborhood is full of the standard contrivances and brief interludes that have us picking and choosing the characters we want to be spending time with and the others who we could just discard. A little Spiridakis goes a long way on screen and we get a lot of him, constanly reminding everyone who comes in contact with him about his wife and the piercing, unexplained ringing he has in his head. He's the nice, but loudmouth New York skeptic that's a cliché onto itself and the rapport he builds with the even less interesting Judy and her loss doesn't provide the ray of spark off-screen that its supposed to in their lives. Even the overly cutesy angle of their names (Punch and Judy) isn't played for more than a coincidence.

Overly cutesy may be how many find the dynamic between shut-in Liz and the expressive Karl, who spends the film trying to get her attention and then going way over-the-top in helping her find her lost cat. Garofalo and Esposito somehow find a way through the clowniness to create sympathetic portraits of people who may be relying on excuses to govern their behavior. Introvert vs. extrovert is a constant theme in this neighborhood and manifests itself the strongest in the relationship between Samantha and Gina. Jennifer Carpenter (in her film debut) does a nice job in conveying the secrets of a soul on a journey with no clear destination. The way she handles the brash Gina in her revelatory moments of truth are standout highlights.

No one is ever going to mistake Ash Tuesday with the deep subtext inherent in 25th Hour, but it still co-exists as a nice ensemble piece that takes on considerable more depth once all the dots take connection. Spiridakis succeeds by not revealing all his cards too soon nor even by the film's end as it will take a few keen observations to see how the parallel paths all come to intersect. There are coincidences and surprises abound, some a little too perfect to be sure, but plausible enough thanks to the performances and the underlying subject matter that elevates it just above the likes of films like Playing by Heart, 200 Cigarettes and Spiridakis' own Queen's Logic. It's sad that anyone has to "use" 9/11 in their stories, but it's hard to tell a NY tale since without hinting at it by either comment or digital removal. The day will come when remembrance won't have to be a dominant trait, but one that we can use to enrich our lives in the future. Which is what we take away from Ash Tuesday.

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originally posted: 06/27/03 08:15:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Tribeca Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/03/04 jules i love jake m. smith he is so so hot 5 stars
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