Idiots make lousy criminals.
In theory, Welcome to Collinwood should have been a bigger hit. George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh—aging frat brothers in crime—combine to remake a highly successful Italian comedy alongside a cast swarming with comedic talent. Sadly, the film turns out to be a great joke that dies from a botched delivery—or does it?
Facts of the Case
Cosimo (Luis Guzman) and Toto (Michael Jeter) are the poster children for stupid criminals. In a failed attempt to steal a car, Cosimo is caught and sent to the big house. In a not so ironic twist of fate, his cellmate turns out to be a lifer arrested for murdering his wife two days before pulling a Bellini. Armed with this knowledge, Cosimo needs a Mulinski to spring him from prison so he can claim the Bellini for himself. Only to do so, he needs help from his girlfriend (Patricia Clarkson), who looks for assistance from Toto, who calls on Basil (Andrew Davoli), who draws in Leon (Isaiah Washington), who seeks counsel from Riley (William H. Macy), who selects the perfect Mulinski—Pero (Sam Rockwell), who calls upon the burglary talents of the great Jerzy (George Clooney). Before long, this quiet little caper has drawn so much attention even the cops are on to them. How do five bungling idiots with half a brain among them pull off the greatest heist of their career without killing themselves or each other?
Remember the old telephone game? The one where someone whispers a brief story to someone else who in turns tells another person and so on and so on and so on. By the time it returns to the beginning, the story holds a vague semblance to the original but has been warped in strange yet fascinating ways. The same holds true for films.
Sherman, set the way-back machine to the year 1955, where we find a unique French noir film entitled Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes (Rififi). Based on the novel by Auguste Le Breton, Jules Dassin's intricate crime drama focuses on four men attempting to pull off the perfect crime. Moving forward in the storytelling chain to the year 1958, we find the Italian parody of Rififi—I Soliti Ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street). In Mario Monicelli's version, the perfect crime becomes a hilarious disaster in the hands of four completely inept morons. Advancing the story once again we make a brief stop in the year 1967, where Howard Morris has transformed Rafifi into the guilt-driven, star-studded comedy Who's Minding the Mint?. Alas, it appears downhill from here, as our story warps into Louis Malle's 1984 debacle Crackers, where even powerhouse Hollywood talent couldn't excavate the deeply buried original concept. But Mr. Peabody, why would people continue to try and make the same film over and over again? Are there no new ideas in Hollywood? Of course there are, Sherman my boy, but the lure of building a better mousetrap is quite powerful, and Le Breton's original concept may still hold valuable treasure yet to be mined.
Enter the Russo brothers, Anthony and Joseph, relative newcomers to the Hollywood scene. Their 1997 experimental short film Pieces drew festival interest from director Steven Soderbergh, who offered to help produce the boys' first feature film. What to do with their big break? Bring Monicelli's Big Deal—one of their all time favorite comedies—to an American audience and a whole new generation of fans. You see, these guys aren't idiots. They are both highly educated students of film, both foreign and domestic. They see things and think about things that your standard American movie going audience is rarely, if ever, going to understand. Thus merging highbrow existentialism with lowbrow farce creates an interesting juxtaposition, resulting in Welcome to Collinwood.
Let me be honest with you. This is a very different film. You will either hate it from the word go or stay with it, laugh with it, and when it's over wonder if you liked it or not. The entire production is unlike anything I have ever seen and the story is timeless. Set in the ethnically diverse and racially charged Collinwood—an embattled neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio—you will be hard pressed to tell what year you are witnessing. The city looks like something out of the Great Depression, the costumes and hairstyles range anywhere from the 1930s through 1980s, and the language is a confluence of American slang. Disorienting at times, but intriguing nonetheless. Perhaps this is the Russo's way of keeping their audience off balance. The story is simple and at the same time unnecessary—five guys trying hard to work together in the hopes of making their lives better but ultimately making them worse. It's much like people who spend 90% of their welfare check on lottery tickets hoping for the big payoff while condemning themselves to remain forever at the bottom of life's barrel. The only person who wins is the one who decides not to play the game.
Four standout performances make the film worthy of investing 86 minutes of your life. George Clooney's (Ocean's Eleven) Jerzy—the grizzled old veteran of crime—is little more than a glorified cameo, but like the great ones he makes the most of each opportunity. William H. Macy's (Fargo) Riley is a father trying to do right for his baby son and imprisoned wife but going about it all the wrong way. As always, his comedic timing is impeccable, especially when the chips are down. Sam Rockwell's (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) Pero is a piss poor boxer who has taken one too many shots to the head and is willing to sell out anyone to get what he wants. Far more than a comedian, Rockwell has the tools to tackle any role and make it fascinating. One only need observe the little things (speech patterns, facial expressions, et cetera) to see the depth and breadth of his talent. Last but certainly not least is the late Michael Jeter (The Green Mile)—a man whose star will continue to shine stronger and brighter with time. In one of his final performances, Jeter's Toto is larger than life but in the most subtle of ways. As Lucy Van Pelt would say…of all the Charlie Browns in the world, Toto is the Charlie Browniest. Proved here once again, Jeter could get inside of a character like few others and remain forever without missing a single beat. His talent and presence will be sorely missed.
Turning an eye to Collinwood's technical merits, the film has a unique and entrancing appearance. While the transfer has very little in the way of defects, aside from the slight use of edge enhancement, it projects the gritty feel of a street level independent film. This most certainly isn't a Hollywood backlot picture. Collinwood is the underbelly of Cleveland enhanced to mythic proportions. The colors are army surplus and the night shots are punctuated by midnight blacks. While the 5.1 audio is typical for a dialogue heavy film, utilizing primarily the front three speakers, there is one overwhelmingly important feature—Mark Mothersbaugh's eclectic and whimsical underscore. Who could have guessed the man who gave us Devo would turn out to be of the film world's most talented and prolific composers? In terms of bonus features, Warner does not go out of its way on this title. The highlight of the package is a 12-minute featurette—a home movie of sorts—shot behind the scenes by Andy Davoli and his brothers. It's a great look at what goes on during the massive amounts of downtime on a movie set. Rounding out the package is a Collinwood slang dictionary (trust me, you'll need it), the original theatrical trailer, DVD-ROM links (for PC users only), and the obligatory cast and crew bios.
This is esoteric comedy—think The Usual Suspects meets The Three Stooges. If you are willing to try new and different things, expanding your horizons of film appreciation, you will most certainly want to rent Welcome to Collinwood. If you are expecting a laugh riot along the lines of Caddyshack, don't waste your time. The only catch phrase coming out of this picture is "Your mother's a whore!"
This court is intrigued by the Russo brothers and sets them free on their own recognizance. Keep making interesting films. All charges have been dropped against Welcome to Collinwood although let it be known this is not a film for the masses. Finally, Warner Brothers is let off with a warning and community service. Start treating your films with more respect than cardboard packaging and a sad collection of bonus features. Thirty days in Marketing 101 at UCLA. This court is now adjourned.
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