A B-movie Goodfellas down to its bones, Michael Corrente's new film Brooklyn Rules even begins with a 'this is where I live'-style narration in which a young man takes us through the ins and outs of his Italian-American neighborhood, giving us a guided tour of the world we're about to spend 90-odd minutes in. The difference between Scorcese's classic and this is that we're not in the 60s, but the mid-80s -- we see two people arguing over the time logistics of Back to the Future at one point -- and the main character is not a criminal per say, but is only on speaking terms with the life. Michael Turner (Freddie Prinze Jr.) is a scrapper who, we're led to believe, is putting his nascent wiseguy instincts to the most harmless possible use, cheating on tests in a pre-law program at Columbia University. It's here where he will meet Ellen, (Mena Suvari) an uptown girl who is pretty happy in her whitebread world, and will begin to feel himself pressured to choose one world or the other.
If the movie I've just described is from Mars, there's a whole other movie going on in there that's from Venus. That movie features Alec Baldwin as a cold-eyed Gambino associate -- the film is steeped in actual 80s New York mob lore, specifically the murder of boss Castellano and subsequent rise of Gotti -- and aims to be a serious and bloody mob movie. Baldwin's character, Caesar, is recruiting Michael's friend Carmine (Scott Caan) into the mob and whenever Caesar enters the picture, things take on a much darker tone, and violence is usually right around the corner. Baldwin proceeds exactly as if entire movie is focused on him -- maybe that's what they told him -- and because he's such a good actor, he drags the energy of the story towards his B-plot and inadvertently sucks the air out of the film's A-story, which is all about Michael's relationship with Ellen and his attempt to transact an amiable divorce from his old neighborhood. It's an odd problem for a film to have, but it's one that makes Brooklyn Rules fairly lopsided.
It's surprising to learn that the film was co-written by Terence Winter, whose deft and deep writing is a hallmark of The Sopranos. Surprising because of all the things Brooklyn Rules is, one of them is certainly not deep. It's sometimes fun and perhaps recommendable for Baldwin's performance alone, but not a serious mob film in the vein of Donnie Brasco, for example. I never felt like I was being dipped into a real world when watching it, only occasionally enjoying a clearly contrived set-up with more or less paper-thin characters who are circling around what looks like a much more interesting mob story. John Gotti is referenced so often in the film that you start hoping he'll actually show up and give the movie some juice. Instead, director Corrente keeps his attention relentlessly focused on the three friends -- Michael, Carmine and Bobby (Jerry Ferrara) -- and has them brush up against real mob activity only here and there so that they can get a whiff of a life they should be struggling hard to stay out of.
The interplay between Prinze and Suvari is fairly mediocre and sometimes downright bland-- there's no sense of real chemistry going on in most of their scenes, and you can blame whoever you like for that, but it nearly kills a primary thread of the film. If we don't care about them, then we don't really care if Michael gets 'out of Brooklyn,' really. Marginally more successful is the 'three buddies' thread, where we're supposed to care about whether the friendship bond between Michael, Carmine and Bobby will be splintered if one of them joins the mob or if one of them hooks up with the rich girl and moves away, and so forth. Caan and Ferrara handle their scenes fairly well, even though it may occur to you why an aspiring wiseguy would have such an attachment to his non-mob friends. Is that soft streak going to be good for his career? For his part, Prinze is passable. The role requires a modicum of talent, and I guess he earns his check for acting services rendered.
Terence Winter has credited the Brooklyn Rules screenplay to his own childhood experiences and whether or not you enjoy it may be determined by how close your own adolescence mirrors his. He's also said that some of more violent events in the film -- at one point, Ceasar is seen abruptly cutting someone's ear off with a meat slicer and then leaving the guy to bleed to death on the floor -- were concocted out of thin air to give the film some mob story juice, and unfortunately that's exactly how they come across. So here's the bottom line -- if you grew up in Brooklyn in the 80s, and hearing about the murder of Paul Castellano outside of Sparks Steak House brings a tear of nostalgia to your eye, then you should get to a theater immediately. Ditto if you're just curious to see Alec Baldwin putting on a real performance in a movie that can't really do it justice. So that's two possible reasons right there to see Brooklyn Rules. I wish I could come up with more.