Director Alan Taylor's debut feature is the low-key tale of three amiable fuck-ups who dream of improving their dead-end lot in life with the perfect crime, but who're just too good-hearted to pull it off. Scripted by playwright David Epstein, Palookaville adapts the '40s tales of Italian humorist Italo Calvino (who told of his countrymen's ill-fated strategies to make ends meet in the economically devastated post-war years), and plays like a sort of American Ealing comedy or Bill Forsyth droll festival. Applying Calvino's universal human situations to contemporary New Jersey's long-term unemployed, Epstein and Taylor have fashioned a slight yet smart indie comedy, marrying sharply observed Ed Burns-style dialogue to a low-rent vision of the US underworld.
Portrayed by three actors better known for playing bruisers and heavies, Palookaville's trio of amiable lunkheads are introduced to us halfway through bungling the robbery of a jewellery store (they've broken into next door's doughnut bakery instead). Battered by a life of continual misfortune, and infuriated by his companions' utter inability to pull off the most simple of crimes, Russ (Gallo) cajoles Sid (Forsythe) and Jerry (Trese) into researching an assault on the neighbourhood supermarket's cash-carrying security van. From this moment on, nothing goes right for these would-be villains, cruel Mistress Fate slipping banana skins under them with each outlandish turn of the plot.
Within this absurdist framework, Epstein and Taylor fashion a film that works as both a demented comedy of cosmic errors and a serious examination of the arse end of US society. The script stabs vigorously at the cancerous underbelly of America's recession, without being self-righteous or sombre.
William Forsythe, an actor with more psychos on his CV than James Woods and Dennis Hopper put together (now there's an alarming thought), is well cast against type as Sid, the laid-back, bespectacled dog-lover who can't accept his messy divorce. Exhibiting previously unseen restraint, he shines as a dreamer struggling to rewire his sense of self-respect. Bouncing off the manic Russ and the youthful, semi-innocent Jerry, Forsythe achieves a depth never hinted at by his portfolio of eyeball-rolling, sinew-stretching wildman roles. Meanwhile, Adam Trese as married good guyJerry adopts an air of boyish disillusionment, adding a poignant undertone to the failed hoodlums' financial predicament. Jerry's scenes with his wife Betty (Linda Gay Hamilton) are played totally straight, bleakly underscoring Palookaville's feel of urban alienation.
But it's Vincent Gallo's perennially pained reaction to adversity that provides the comic glue that binds Palookaville together. He's mesmerising as the edgy, weaselly (yet charismatic), would-be leader of men, exasperatingly funny as he bids to co-ordinate the trio's fantasy life of crime, and touchingly misguided in his neglect of a potentially redemptive relationship with his teenage love Laurie (Kim Dickens).
Blessed with such a uniformly great cast, Epstein's script blossoms into a slow-burn character study that highlights life's cosmic absurdities, frequently scaling farcical heights with its procession of out-of-the-blue plot turns. At the same time, it's capable of making serious points, and without lapsing into pathos.
Ultimately, the bulk of the credit must go to debut director Alan Taylor. He's succeeded in translating Epstein's mix of social commentary and creeping humour into a practically note-perfect (and funny) study of comic desperation. Palookaville skips deftly along that razor's edge between cornball coincidence and profound heartache.