Innocence and voyeurism.
Just Looking is the type of film you don't expect to see anymore—a charming, heartwarming comedy that looks at sex through the eyes of innocence. It's an old fashioned coming of age story, unfortunately rated R to dissuade some of the film's best audience. Set in the 1950s, it is reminiscent of films like Stand By Me, though with a racier premise. Jason Alexander, of "Seinfeld" fame, helms the film in his second stint in the director's chair, and Columbia has released the film on DVD with a nice anamorphic transfer.
Facts of the Case
Lennie is a fairly typical 14-year-old from the Bronx; his many interests include girls, sex, friends, girls, and sex. Unfortunately the 1950s doesn't offer him the same opportunities to see sexual images flashed at him from every angle, and his greatest desire is to actually see two people having sex. His efforts seem frustrated when he is sent away to Queens to live with his aunt Norma (Ilana Levine) and Italian uncle Phil (Peter Onorati) for the summer. At least Lennie will be away from his new stepfather Polinski (Richard V. Licata), whom he loathes. But he follows his obsession, and goes to great lengths in doing so, peeping through keyholes and lurking in the bushes with binoculars in an effort to satisfy his curiosity. Making friends, falling for the local beauty Hedy (Gretchen Mol), and learning more about life, love, and family are all parts of what is in store for him this magical summer.
This isn't a complex film. It's a sugary-sweet piece of sentiment, peopled by authentic and likable people going through their lives. Like other films set in the 1950s, it looks back on the period with more than a hint of nostalgia, sort of a historical view through rose-colored glasses. The immaculate streets of Queens and the ethnic diversity are at best an optimistic view of the time. But the film isn't trying to make a historical statement, or to profess some big point of view; it has much more to do with people. Though our protagonist Lennie goes to greater lengths to learn more about sex than most, the preoccupation with the subject among teenagers is timeless. He remains likable despite his penchant for voyeurism, and Ryan Merriman (The Deep End of the Ocean) plays the part nearly to perfection.
The supporting cast is especially strong here. Almost as much as this is a film about Lennie, it is about Hedy, the epitome of the 1950s single working woman. The beauty and charm of Gretchen Mol make her eminently believable as the object of Lennie's affection, while her charisma and talent made the character real. I was impressed with her performance, as I was with both Peter Onorati and with Rich Licata, who is virtually new to the business. The commentary track reveals that Licata made a living as a dentist before coming to acting. Amy Braverman also shines as the worldly-wise but self conscious Alice.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I really liked the film, but at times almost despite itself. Just Looking is billed as a hilarious comedy, but at best I got some smiles and chuckles. It was all too sweet and too dramatic to elicit gut laughs. I found I liked the more dramatic human scenes even more than the comedy set pieces. That said, the film's biggest downfall is that it gets too sentimental and a bit manipulative at times. At times the story becomes just a bit too pat and predictable. I want to make clear that the film's strengths greatly outweighed these weaknesses in my view, but I certainly realized when I was being manipulated.
The DVD presentation is good but not great. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer looks very nice, with a very clean source print, a sharp image, and good contrasts. I did notice one instance of pixelization and some color bleeding in a few scenes, but these are not truly problematic unless you're looking for such flaws. The film looks great on DVD. There is a pan and scan transfer on the flip side, which as usual I did not review. The sound is a front and center loaded Dolby Surround, but the film is so dialogue driven that it really didn't matter. The rear channels are mainly relegated to the classic 1950s music in the background. The extra content is a nice package, led by a feature length commentary track from director Jason Alexander, producer Michael Jackman, and editor Norman Hollyn. It's a fun and entertaining commentary track, and worth a listen. Five deleted scenes come next, also offered with or without commentary. Three are truly deleted scenes, and should be, while the other two are longer versions of existing scenes, but were trimmed for pacing and to avoid even more manipulation. Listening to Alexander and his attention to every detail made me respect him as a director. Talent files and trailers for Just Looking, The Thirteenth Floor, and The Deep End of the Ocean complete the extra content. For a disc not labeled as a special edition, I'm quite pleased with the extras.
I have one last gripe, and it doesn't have much to do with the film itself. Just Looking is rated R because of some sexual content (but no actual sex and barely a glimpse of nudity) and for use of the "F" word in a few spots. This is a film that would be fine for teenagers to watch. So many other films get away with wet T-shirts on women, with killing dozens of people; offering nothing besides the sex and violence, and they get PG-13 through some arcane rules that don't look at the film in its entirety. Parents cannot depend on the ratings to determine what is all right for their kids and what is not, which is a shame. We need to decide as a society what is more important and more offensive to us: a bare breast or a dozen people getting murdered in our kids' presence. A word kids hear every day or sexual imagery bombarding them. Only taking the whole film into account can provide the kind of guidance a parent wants.
Give Just Looking a chance, and it's innocent charm will be a nice respite from the usual picture being made today. Once you've seen it, you might feel free to let your teenagers see it too, even though it has the dreaded R rating. Give it a rental; you might just decide you want to own it as well.
Jason Alexander and the makers of Just Looking are given a slap on the wrist for taking the sentiment and manipulation just a bit too far, and offsetting the comedy in the process. The slap is suspended, and the film as a whole is acquitted. Columbia is likewise acquitted for paying proper attention to the DVD presentation and the extra content.
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