Judge Bill Gibron believes that film noir is not dead. Thanks to this uneven if effective whodunit, the genre has merely been buried in an unusual blanket of indie irony.
8 Suspects…8 Motives…1 Missing Body
It is not your typical night at the Polite Persistence Debt Collection Agency. A 911 call claims a shooting has taken place near the company's call center and when the police arrive, they discover a phone bank full of suspects. Sam (John Glover, Smallville), the detective on the case, must slog through a collection of crackpots, criminals, and creeps to get to the truth, beginning with "the boss," Harvey (Paul Sorvino, Goodfellas). A mobster wannabe, this otherwise good-natured employer has a special place in his heart for all his workers, from the prickly pervert Walter (Tony Roberts, Annie Hall) to the loudmouthed lewdness of Frankie (Patricia Scanlon), top terrorizer of the indebted. Between shady single mom Kate (Jill Hennessy, Crossing Jordan), blond bad boy James (Justin Theroux, Mulholland Dr.), and a nosy company accountant (Nela Wagman), everyone had a reason to kill. Until a body turns up or the entire truth is told, there won't be a conclusion to the case anytime soon, though. At least now, the clients aren't the only facet of this business that is Dead Broke.
Though it's cinematically sloppy and stumbles getting to its final act denouement, Dead Broke is something quite rare in the world of post-modern moviemaking—a straight-ahead murder mystery. You know the kind—a crime (usually murder), a series of suspects, and a shrewd detective who has the internal fortitude, both mentally and physically, to figure it all out. Long thought the purview of old-fashioned scribes like Agatha Christie or P.D. James, writer/director Edward Vilga has decided to give the genre a slick indie gloss, making what could have been mediocre into a daring, direct attempt at modern film noir. He never really achieves the look visually, though there are moments throughout that mimic the smoky, lights-through-window-slats ideal. No, where Dead Broke gets most of its momentum is in its clever scripting, a uniquely comic approach to the material that mixes idiosyncrasies with those mandatory skeletons in the closet to produce people we suspect even as they vehemently assert their innocence. Occasionally, some of the plot twists appear forced, falling out of the clockwork-style logic such movies are based on. Still, overall, this is an interesting effort.
Sadly, some of his actors undermine the material. In a large ensemble with several recognizable faces, Dead Broke has some significantly underwhelming performances. On the plus side are Paul Sorvino and John Glover. As the glad-handing goomba who runs the collections agency, Sorvino never hits a wrong note. Even with the obligatory facets of his "de's" and "doo's" mannerism, he gives his kind-hearted heavy real soul and vigor. Glover, on the other hand, has the far more complicated part. His detective is supposed to be sharp, incisive, and quick with conclusions. However, there is an undercurrent of unease to everything he does, a decided preoccupation with matters outside the case that constantly intermingles with his efficiency. It makes for a very complex creation. Without their efforts, Dead Broke would be quite amateurish. With them, the film tolerates its less-than-stellar turns. As fierce, foul-mouthed debt collector Frankie, Patricia Scanlon tries to be bad-ass, brazen, and ballsy. Instead, she's a screaming shrew with not a single note of subtlety. Even worse, Jill Hennessy is a void as Kate. We are supposed to see her as mysterious and secretive. Instead, she is merely dull.
Dead Broke also suffers from an infusion of arch eccentricity. Tony Roberts, famous for his work with Woody Allen, is supposed to be a prim and proper pervert. Yet aside from clipped line delivery and leering looks, he's just a collection of fashion tips. Equally, Harvey's girlfriend Luanne is a slumming heiress, a woman of color worth a "small eight figures." Yet nothing about her screams money or personal manipulation. Indeed, these quirks are nothing more than strokes in the screenplay, purposefully written peculiarities that never come alive. Similarly, the ending is particularly problematic. It is supposed to be viewed as an unseen twist, a logical inference from all the facts laid out in the investigative Q&A. But it still appears awkward, especially since the reasons behind it are not articulated. Everyone else had a clear motive—some are even repeated over and over again. But in the case of the killer, her ID is purposefully pulled back, never explained or even implied for that matter. Still, the whole of Dead Broke overcomes the many minor misgivings, leaving behind an engaging, if aggravating, entertainment.
Polychrome Pictures, distributed by Warner Brothers, does a nice job with the DVD release of this title. The 1.33:1 full-frame image is clean, crisp, and loaded with discernible detail. The colors are correct, and the balance between bright and night is well maintained. As a director, Vilga is not the most artistically minded. His framing often argues for a journeymen approach to moviemaking. Still, from a visual standpoint, Dead Broke looks fine. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is professional and plain. There is no attempt to create a kind of aural ambience and, since the dialogue is easily understood, that's really all that matters. As for extras, the disc is rather devoid. There is a nice commentary track by Vilga, filled with the pride and the problems of an independent auteur. He has interesting anecdotes about his cast and nothing but praise for even the most obvious production flaws. Along with a collection of trailers, the complementary material here is sparse if not insightful.
Perhaps the failings that follow Dead Broke indicate why the murder mystery has fallen out of favor in the realm of motion pictures. It takes perfection all around—script, direction, acting, narrative—to produce a flawless filmic example. Otherwise, you end up with something scattered, or even worse, silly. While Edward Vilga deserves credit for attempting the genre, the results are less than adept. Dead Broke is merely adequate—a solid screenplay undermined by factors outside the director's control.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Polychrome Pictures
• Full-length Audio Commentary by writer/director Edward Vilga
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