Oy gevalt, this "quirky" look at an old Cleveland deli gave Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky a pain in the tuchus.
"How Marv stayed in business was a mystery."—Benny (Allan Pinsker)
You might be forgiven for thinking that The Nightowls of Coventry is based on the work of Harvey Pekar. That is what I thought when I first picked up the DVD case. I have been a fan of Pekar's autobiographical comics, and I was a great booster of American Splendor, the…film adapted from his writing. So I was looking forward to The Nightowls of Coventry, even though I did not recognize the title from any past issues of the American Splendor comic, and didn't see Pekar's name actually listed in the credits. But it had to be about Pekar, right? I mean, there is his picture, drawn by Gary Dumm, out front on the cover art. There's a quote from him right there at the top, calling this "a warm and humane film." The special features list an interview with Pekar. So, this has to be a Harvey Pekar film!
Call it misleading advertising. Call it an endorsement gone overboard. Whatever the case, fans of Harvey Pekar and the rich and introspective indie film American Splendor should be warned: The Nightowls of Coventry is not about your favorite Cleveland schlub. Not at all.
What you've got instead is the stagy tale of Marv's Deli, home of a good blintz and a cup of coffee. By 1973, this Cleveland institution, housed on Coventry Street, is on its last legs. Marv's Deli is a relic of an older world, an older crowd, and it will soon fade from the new tumultuous scene. The old Jewish guys at the corner table kvetch, while Marv bets on the horses. Hippies sit on the stoop badly singing folk songs, like the ancestors of Jay and Silent Bob, while the television broadcasts stories of Watergate. Pretty WASP girl Susan (Donna Casey) comes for a job and quickly finds herself caught between the wise old men trying to protect her from an iffy "holistic healer," his bad haircut, and his bong.
The Nightowls of Coventry feels like a community theater production that needs to project itself to the back row. The actors (particularly the hippies) play everything on the surface, and the script feels the need include scenes that alternately announce "this is 1973!" (check out the stoners with the beaded curtain who turn up out of nowhere) or "look at how cute and funny Jews are!" (the hippies argue over which one is having the tongue sandwich and which one is ordering blintzes).
This is a film that clearly means well. Writer and director Laura Paglin wants to covey a nostalgic feeling, a love for a Cleveland fading away. Her conceit is a familiar one: the quirky (read "ethnic") mentor (Allan Pinsker, who narrates the tale like your grandfather—you know, the one who always thought it was funny to have you pull his finger) takes the whitebread and naïve audience surrogate (the Susan character) under his wing to teach us all about the wonders of "the old ways."
There are a few relaxed, natural moments in the film, especially when the "alte kockers" sit around the table chattering about nothing in particular. But these moments do not add up to much, and the script tries to fill its brief running time out with too many affected moments and thinly realized characters. It is as if Laura Paglin was cribbing bits from Indie Filmmaking for Dummies. Page 124: "Clerks used Jay and Silent Bob to provide comedy relief moments in between character pieces inside the central location." Aha! Let's throw in a pair of hippies that hang around all the time. (Can you tell the hippies in this movie really annoyed me?) Page 68: "Heartwarming ethnic characters allow you to turn stereotypes into audience bonding moments." From My Big Fat Greek Wedding to Laura Paglin's ears. Page 200: "Make sure you remind your audience that the past was a simpler time." So, let's add a Communist with a beret (who looks like Ron Jeremy's younger brother) and some mildly rowdy bikers (called "Who's Angels") whose worst crime is patting the waitresses' butts. And where that fails, use the Cleveland connection to link the film up to Harvey Pekar, even if his voice—and his thematic depth—is completely missing.
Pekar shows up for a five-minute interview about his life in the Coventry neighborhood. The movie is never mentioned, but he does show panels from some of his comic stories to give you a sense of how he sees the world. Laura Paglin turns up for a one-minute Sundance Channel news blurb about the production—not even a full-fledged interview. There are two deleted scenes. At 75 minutes, the film already meanders too much, so I am glad these were cut.
I find it hard to get too upset at The Nightowls of Coventry, at least while watching it. Local actors, neighborhood locations—anybody who grew up around a place like Marv's Deli will likely recognize these character types and feel warm and fuzzy inside. If you haven't, you probably won't care much about these characters. What I am ticked off about is the misleading advertising that tries to position this well-meaning but painfully thin film as something it is not.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Epoch
• Sundance Channel Segment with Laura Paglin
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