A Lighthearted Caper Flick
Filmmakers Anthony and Joe Russo have great respect for their pathetically endearing characters in Welcome to Collinwood. Their film doesn't exploit these people for cheap laughs like a lesser comedy would. Whether or not this lighthearted caper grows on you will be determined by how far your cynicism is willing to take you. My advice is to abandon all pretentions and have a good time here.
Imprisoned after a failed car theft, Cosimo (Luis Guzman) has just discovered his Bellini (a.k.a. the job) in the form of a lifer's tale of $300 grand sitting in a pawnshop safe, just waiting to be stolen. Cosimo sends out his girlfriend (Patricia Clarkson) to find a Mullinski (a.k.a. a fall guy) to take the rap so he can pull off the job. Instead, a variety of kind-hearted souls from the crumbling Cleveland suburb of Collinwood become part of the plan: family man Riley (William H. Macy), gentlemanly Leon (Isaiah Washington), small-time boxer Pero (Sam Rockwell), Cosimo's partner Toto (the late Michael Jeter), and jobless rogue Basil (Andrew Davoli). Together, the group forms their own plan to pilfer the pawnshop by sneaking into the apartment next door and drilling through the wall -- with a little advice from expert safecracker Jerzy (George Clooney). But a kink or two, in addition to the group's lack of criminal know-how, ends up mucking up the heist. From Pero falling in love with the apartment's maid (Jennifer Esposito) to Basil falling for Leon's sister (Gabrielle Union), all signs threaten to turn their Bellini into a disaster.
If there are film buffs reading this review and seeing familiar stuff, it's because Welcome to Collinwood is an updating of the Oscar-nominated Italian picture Big Deal on Madonna Street. Right down to the names of the characters, several scenes (the Russo Brothers even keep the trio of loan shark nuns!), and the story's light tone, Welcome to Collinwood pays homage to the spirit of Madonna Street while introducing the story to a new generation of movie aficionados. The Russos do it right and retain most of what made Madonna Street such a fun movie. The hapless characters are treated with care and kindness, and when it comes time for them to engage in some good ol' hilarity, you know it's just part of their character to fall down the stairs or get something dropped on their feet -- and not something required by a bad script.
Yes, you have to listen closely to get some of the jokes in Welcome to Collinwood, as the majority of them are subtle and fly by at a rapid pace, but rest assured they are there and in fresh supply (Clooney's three scenes are classic, as is the climactic heist scene). Everything is tied together by Anthony and Joe Russo, two guys whose direction shows a lot of love for the characters, their surroundings, their quirks, and the situations they find themselves in.
Collinwood's cast is also a key to its success. Macy, wonderful as the crook whose baby is always crying, just wants to get his wife out of jail. Rockwell is great as the guy who could be a great boxer...if he didn't hit the canvas after one punch. Jeter's performance as the frail Toto emerges as a true comedic gem. Washington does good work as an overprotective brother, Davoli delivers as a schmoe in love, and brilliant character actor Guzman is terrific as the jailed thief whose response to everything involves screaming out, "Your mother's a whore!" My only complaints? Esposito not being believable as the promiscuous maid, the gorgeous Union getting a throwaway role, and Clarkson ending up the same way as Union.
Although the story is a bit thin, Welcome to Collinwood works with what it has, and the result is a quickly-paced but very entertaining comedy. Even if you don't end up rolling on the floor laughing, you can still appreciate the spirit of the screenplay as well as one of the best casts of character actors ever assembled.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "R" for language.)
Review also posted at www.ajhakari.com.