Jerry, Russ, and Sid aren't bad guys. They aren't master thieves or even enthusiastic amateur crooks. They're just three guys up against it—out of work and looking for a way to get some quick cash.
This premise could go a lot of ways depending on the sensibility of the filmmakers, and most options would have this story ending in tragedy. Thankfully for Palookaville (1995), writer David Epstein and director Alan Taylor keep our three stooges in the land of comedy, ensuring that what begins as a path towards jail ends with our heroes gaining a new outlook on what they should be thankful for.
The main characters of the film are played by three NYC-based indie actors at their mid-1990s prime: Vincent Gallo, William Forsythe, and Adam Trese. Gallo plays Russ, the Moe of this gang of stooges. Gallo brings his usual acidity and sarcasm to Russ' character and is constantly deriding his cohorts for plans they've fouled up and for apprehensions they have about upcoming capers. But, keeping in the sweet spirit of this film, his barbs are tinged affection and understanding. For the mercurial actor Vincent Gallo it's one of his most endearing roles.
Forsythe, often cast as tough-cookie gangster types, is shy Sid, a big guy with a big heart who's been tripped up by a divorce and recent unemployment. Sid has allowed things around him to fall apart a little, withdrawing from folks and preferring the company of his two dogs. Adam Trese, an underrated actor known for his starring turns in Nick Gomez' Laws of Gravity (1992) and Illtown (1996), is Jerry, a happily married man with a young son. Jerry is the most reluctant of our three heroes to undertake any criminal escapade since he has the most to lose, but that also means his money situation is especially perilous and his good-natured wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton) is finally losing her cool.
The trio's first plan is a simple jewelry store robbery, which goes wrong when our heroes misread the building's blueprints and tunnel into the neighboring bakery rather than the jeweler's vault. Hiding amongst powdered donuts with $45 from the register is not what Russ had planned for a quick score. Brainstorming other ways to get a buck fast Russ persuades his friends that another job is in order by reasoning, "I'm not talking about a life of crime, just a momentary shift in lifestyle."
Attempting a few fringe enterprises like a gypsy cab service for senior citizens, Jerry and Sid try to stall Russ' plans for any felony-level robberies. But when the cab service causes (hilarious) problems, the three agree that another big caper is the only way to keep the lights on. None of the three really have a taste for crime or violence, as evinced when they settle their new plan of robbing an armored car. Rather than stocking up on weaponry or getting advice from older felons, they research and prep for this job by renting the classic Hollywood film Armored Car Robbery and taking notes about the robbers' mannerisms and hand signals.
The comedy in Palookaville is light and natural—there are no wacky sight gags, cynical black humor, or crude jokes. Filmed in Jersey City and Bayonne, most of the storefronts and cars that are seen in the film are from the 1960s and 1970s, providing an out of step, timeless quality that keeps the film from feeling stale or rooted in the early-'90s indie boom. Palookaville is an underrated classic comedy, a perfect film for crime fans to watch over the holidays with its wintry setting and good-natured tone that's kind-hearted without being patronizing.
The film never suggests that things will turn around overnight for these guys, but by the end of the story our heroes are reminded that there's more to life than money. They learn that maybe if they have more faith in themselves and each other, things might just work out alright.
Palookaville is available on DVD from online sellers
And on a personal note: Ringing in this holiday season also marks the rough one year anniversary of Sleeping All Day! I want to thank everyone who has supported this project as it's been gaining steam. My pledge is to keep the posts coming at a steadier clip, in support of these great films that have been such a source of entertainment and inspiration to me. I hope this holiday if full of relaxation and happiness for you, and thanks! ~