Thank God it's Friday?
It's Friday night, and the unemployed Willie is looking for some fun. He hooks up with his Latino friend, Fernando, who insists on being called Vinny under the mistaken belief that he'll pass for Italian. But the hot-blooded lover would rather spend the evening with one of his numerous paramours. Eventually, the two men track down Johnny, a depressed grocery store clerk who pines away for a dream woman customer, and Tommy, an actor who's claim to fame is that he once was up for a role in Rain Man (as a waiter). As the gang heads out to check out the party scene, they've got one thing on their minds: women. But as they bounce from club to car to private party, they begin to understand that this weekly ritual of imbibe and conquer is destroying their friendship. Each man has goals and ideas that they really won't share with the others, and when race and class enter into the conversation, things quickly turn ugly. Johnny, for one, wishes for a better life: college, a loving relationship, a true bond of friendship with his fellows. But it always seems that ego and machismo get in the way. As the evening's events go from comical to confrontational, feelings are tested and connections broken. Sometimes, it's better to be alone. And sometimes, you just want to do some time Hangin' with the Homeboys.
Hangin' with the Homeboys has a title and a premise that don't bode well for intelligent, insightful moviemaking. With a name full of jargon jive and a cast of (then) unknown comedians and aspiring actors, this marketed as a hip urban comedy sounds like a prescription for disaster. Add a director helming his second film ever and an ad campaign that played the story for a hip-hop Porky's and the best you can hope for is that Kid and Play don't show up and start a house party. But in reality, Hangin' with the Homeboys is a witty, clever, and thoughtful meditation on coming of ethnic age in the inner city. Drawing on personal rather than formulaic experiences and with a real ear for how young men speak to each other, this is a movie that tackles tough issues while it offers occasional moments of well-observed mirth. This film is far more realistic about friendship and the challenges of life on the other side of the tracks than most movies that purport to provide insight into the municipal minority experience. There is naturalism in the performances, a refreshing candor in the film's use of race, and just enough happy cinematic coincidences to keep the plot from meandering wildly off track. True, one could argue that the accidental happenstance of some of the storylines (Johnny's dream girl is in porn AND a possible Vinny conquest?) tug at believability, but the rest of the movie is so well-grounded that an occasional broad stroke isn't fatal.
It's interesting how well supposed funny men John Leguizamo and Doug E. Doug fit into their roles as a depressed, lovelorn young man and his angry, militant welfare friend. Leguizamo seems to shrink inside of his windbreaker, eschewing all the bravado that is sometimes associated with his Latino characters. He is meek and mild mannered here. Doug, on the other hand, uses his "it's because I'm black" catchphrase to both wonderful comic and dramatic effect. The wounded look in his eyes and the sad yet stern demeanor he puts on in the face of faux (and factual) prejudice really deepens the movie's message. Indeed, if there is a core theme to Hangin' with the Homeboys, it is that race is an obvious barrier to acceptance and success, even among minorities. It allows lifelong friends a shorthand to pigeonhole each other for the sake of interpersonal squabbles and pain. Both the African Americans and the Latinos in the film refer to each other in insensitive epithets and, in some cases, use downright stereotypical insults to mock and degrade. Some of it could be misconstrued as good-natured guy-on-guy goofing, but the truth is probably harsher. These young men have been so brainwashed by white society into believing in their own lack of future that they tow the Caucasian party line out of instinct. Instead of going for something more personal or provocative, they slide back into the store bought social slander that civilization has been selling wholesale for the last 400 years. You sense that, if it were not for the rest of the world telling them how ethnically inferior they are, these guys would resort to pitiful playground put-downs to get their point across. Yet the issue of race is important to Hangin' with the Homeboys, much more so than other movies of its ilk. And it's a better entertainment experience for it.
The late writer/director Joseph B. Vasquez (having lived a troubled and mentally disturbed life, he passed away in 1995) had a real sense of location and individual in this film. His writing here is top notch, keeping the loose amalgamation of vignettes and street skits together with his core conceits of street life, love, and loneliness. One can't help feeling that each of the characters here represents an aspect of Vasquez's experience as a born in the boroughs New Yorker. The character of Tommy is the actor facet, as Vasquez always fancied himself a talented thespian (his lack of big screen success supposedly led to a series of mental and emotional problems). Willie is obviously the issue of prejudice Vasquez had to face everyday. And in the two Puerto Rican men, Vinny/Fernando and Johnny, we see archetype and fluke, the macho lady-killer (at least in his own mind) and the meek, timid dreamer who has goals and desires that transcend his race and social circumstance. It's this kind of careful construction and insight that makes Hangin' with the Homeboys so refreshing. Vasquez could have gone for the cheap laugh, for the sex, drugs, and hip hop horsecrap that usually poses as comedy of color. But instead, his film is more reminiscent of Cooley High or American Graffiti, small slices of life from a particular time and place vividly recalled and highlighting one person's memories of growing up. Sure, there are a couple of comic contrivances (Vinny's love 'em and leave 'em personality) and Johnny's dilemma gets a too-pat resolution, but Hangin' with the Homeboys is a cut above other films dealing with a night out on the town. Instead of sex jokes and shoddy slapstick, this is one film that understands and acknowledges its diverse dynamic.
New Line does a nice job releasing this film onto DVD. The package is barebones and, frankly, fails to do the movie justice, but at least the audio and video specs are first rate. Hangin' with the Homeboys is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image (there is also an unnecessary full screen option) that is sharp and solid. The film takes place mostly at night, on darkly lit streets and neon nightclubs and yet there is no pixelization or flaring. This was also a low-budget affair, yet the digital presentation gives the film a renewed, big budget feel. Aurally, the movie has a wonderful old school hip-hop soundtrack that shakes the speakers with big bass "badness" (all except the Mötley Crüe inspired title track, which really stretches the idea of sampling too far). Dialogue is easily understood, even in crowded bar scenes, and the many quiet moments have a wonderful, inner-city ambience. One could not ask for more from the sound and vision department. But the bonus material just isn't here. The first extra that comes springing to mind is a commentary track. Doug, Leguizamo, and the rest of the cast are still around, and it would be nice to hear what they have to say about this project, its critical acceptance, and the doomed visionary who helmed it. In many ways, Vasquez and his trip down memory blacktop put these actors on the map. But sadly, we only get a selection of trailers and the standard New Line DVD-ROM redundancy. Hangin' with the Homeboys is a good film, hampered by media-made expectations toward its potential mediocrity. It's well worth spending an evening with.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
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