Outside Providence

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Tough But Tender Teens
heard Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s work characterized as silly, disgusting
and shameless, but rarely heartwarming. Yet to some extent, all their films
together share a certain sentimental quality, almost an innocence–no mean
feat considering they’re the kind of guys who get laughs from mangled penises
and semen-as-hair-gel (There’s Something about Mary), explosive diarrhea
(Dumb and Dumber) and the old milking-the-bull gag (Kingpin). In their own demented
and juvenile way, they believe in the redemptive power of love–romantic
love between men and women and gruff love between men. Their real subject is
the eternal adolescence of American manhood, which they both spoof and celebrate.

Mary seems an exception
to this rule, but it actually fits in nicely. One of the few truly original
romances produced by Hollywood in the past decade, it played like a gross-out
screwball comedy about a love triangle, but it was really about how love turns
all men, even supposedly well-adjusted nice guys, into stalkers. The core of
the Farrelly brothers’ oeuvre–if you can call a gallery of turd and
spooge jokes an oeuvre–is their understanding of how men bond with other
men; you could sense this in the way Ben Stiller’s Ted and Matt Dillon’s
Pat found a peculiar kind of solidarity in their pursuit of Mary (Cameron Diaz).
They wanted to kill each other, but each realized the other was in over his
head and deserved a certain backhanded sympathy.

There’s a deep, almost
primordial understanding between the male characters in their movies, whether
those characters are supporting or undermining each other. They understand that
guys don’t have serious discussions about their feelings with other men
because a lot of the time, they don’t need to; sometimes a spirited discussion
of cars, beer, sports or toilet habits is enough to tell one guy where another
guy’s head is at. That’s one reason why Mary was such a hit
with both men and women: representatives of both camps sensed the truth beneath
the idiocy. In Mary, Ted and Pat’s insanely stupid behavior was
the logical consequence of romantic obsession clouded by testosterone. (The
film also put the lie to the notion that men won’t change for love. Remember
Pat’s gleaming new artificial choppers, and the horrified expression on
his face when he learned he was mistaken about Mary finding them attractive?
Dillon’s facial expression didn’t say, "Damn, I went through
all that dental torture for nothing," but rather, "Damn, now I have
to get different teeth to please Mary.")

Outside Providence–a
1970s-era coming-of-age movie about a working-class Rhode Island teen, based
on a 1988 novel by Peter Farrelly–foregrounds the brothers’ interest
in all things manly and self-destructive. It’s about the horrible things
men do to each other–how they treat each other like shit even when they
love each other, because that’s how men are. (In the Farrellys’ crackpot
anthropology, men haven’t so much evolved as learned how to drive and eat
with utensils.) But while Providence has its share of berserker fratboy
sight gags and malicious pranks, it’s a much sweeter film than anything
the Farrellys have done before. It bends reality a little to hew to the young-man-coming-of-age
template (a mistake in some ways). But it’s set in the real world, which
is another way of saying you get the usual number of masturbation jokes without,
say, killer mutts getting body-slammed. And director Michael Corrente (Federal
, American Buffalo), a fellow Rhode Islander who helped the Farrellys
adapt the novel for the movies and financed the film independently, keeps the
hijinks plausible. It’s funny, sometimes very funny, but not in a shiny,
happy, nutty way. Even at its scatological nadir, the laughs are melancholy;
the melancholy tone makes the movie special even when it’s not quite working.

Shawn Hatosy, the appealingly
naturalistic young actor last seen in The Faculty, plays Tim Dunphy,
an 17-year-old from a blue-collar home who’s about to enter his final year
of high school in Pawtucket. Like a lot of high school kids in the 70s, he’s
a cheerful druggie (a stoner, mostly) who can’t figure out if his lack
of ambition is the result of his chemical intake or an excuse for same. He’s
not a bad kid. He dotes on his three-legged dog and adores his younger brother,
Jackie, who’s in a wheelchair because he fell off the roof trying to catch
a pass thrown by Tim. And his misses his mom, who died when the boys were very
young. But Tim isn’t a moony sap. He’s tough and a little reckless.
He’s convinced he’s not going to amount to much, partly because his
hard-drinking, brokenhearted dad (Alec Baldwin, in a great, utterly credible
performance) didn’t amount to much.

When he crashes his dad’s
car into a cop cruiser during a joyride with friends, he’s packed off to
prep school, where with any luck he’ll shape up and get some ambition.
Of course, this being something like reality, Tim is ill-equipped for the prep
school scene. He’s not an academic barn burner, to put it mildly; most
of the time he’d rather get high than worry about his future. Fortunately
for him, there are a lot of preppies who share his interest in getting baked
and postponing adulthood. Pretty soon Tim has fallen in with the campus troublemakers,
whose ranks include a nerdy, maladjusted Jewish braniac with thick glasses (Jack
Ferver), a lanky, James Spaderish preppie weasel named Brackett (Chris Jewett)
and Billy Fu (Alex Toma), a smart but hopelessly blase boy of indeterminate
ethnicity who will never be punished for his transgressions because his rich
dad wrote a multimillion-dollar check to the school that can only be cashed
when his son graduates.

The prep-school bomber crew
setup is familiar; so is the bomber crew of neighborhood pals back home in Pawtucket,
whose most colorful member is a giggling dope fiend named Drugs Delaney (Jon
Abrahams). (In what might be the summer’s funniest comic setpiece, Drugs
gets stoned and writes a rambling letter full of drug references and profanity
to Tim, but neglects to put Tim’s name on it; it finds its way into the
possession of the dean, who insists on calling Tim into his office and reading
it to him aloud in stentorian tones usually reserved for recitations of the
Gettysburg Address.)

Tim’s romance is predictable,
too. The girl who strikes his fancy is a sweet, brilliant, beautiful blonde
named Jane Weston (Amy Smart). Like many Farrelly brothers heroines, she should
be unreachable to the hero–and would be, if she weren’t so down-to-earth,
fun-loving, forgiving and otherwise non-chickish. "I don’t even care
if I bang her," Tim says, in a rare, tender moment. "You can treat
her like a guy." Meaning she’s the kind of girl who doesn’t waste
a lot of precious energy wishing guys weren’t guys.

Nearly every scene in the
film is about how men express love (and sometimes hate) for each other without
words. There are few spell-it-out speeches here; the script stresses gestures
instead, some of them as subtle as the hesitation before one character accepts
a joint from another. (Though the characters suffer consequences for their chemical
intake, this is the most realistic and least judgmental depiction of casual
teen drug use I’ve seen onscreen since Dazed and Confused.) Outside
shows men treating other men with casual kindness and cruelty,
but doesn’t editorialize about either. It understands the only way some
men can express kindness is to be cruel.

Old Man Dunphy, for instance,
calls Tim "dildo" and "assbag," but Tim swallows his annoyance
because he realizes that in his father’s hairy-chested universe, these
words amount to terms of endearment. Later, when the old man gives Tim a halting,
borderline-Neanderthal speech about the birds and the bees ("Remember,
kid, sex is like Chinese food–it ain’t over until you both get your
fortune cookie"), we’re allowed to find the moment both revolting
and sweet. The film’s most powerful moment is a quiet scene where the old
man shows Tim how to tie a tie; rather than milk the moment for cheap sentiment,
Corrente fades to black in mid-action. (This is Baldwin’s best performance
since Glengarry Glen Ross–a gentle redefinition of his image from
perpetually second-tier leading man to first-rate character actor. In public,
he may come off as an arrogant boor, but on film, he appears to have very little
actorly ego; he has a gut in this film and wears it proudly, and he plays a
couple of important scenes in a ratty t-shirt and boxers.)

Corrente, an intelligent
indie filmmaker whose style suggests a suburbanized Scorsese, downplays the
cliched material and plays up the texture of Tim’s two worlds–working-class
Pawtucket and tony prep school. He’s clearly less interested in what happens
to Tim–as evidenced by the underdeveloped minor characters and the inept
handling of several seemingly important subplots–than in how Tim feels
from moment to moment. (You can tell by the way Corrente glosses over the regrettable
final third of the movie–a Tim-against-the-system redemption fantasy that
undoes every mistake he’s made–that he just doesn’t care about
that kind of crap, as well he shouldn’t.)

Strangely enough, the film’s
visual approach reminded me of Eyes Wide Shut. It wants us to be aware
that we’re watching a film and to appreciate the movie’s film-ness.
Like Mean Streets, the story begins with Super-8 home movie footage–squarish,
faded, scratchy images–which could make viewers equally nostalgic for their
youth and for the vanishing art of putting pictures on celluloid. Whether the
scenes are taking place in gunmetal-gray Pawtucket or in the warmer, brighter
prep school setting, Corrente and cinematographer Richard Crudo let us see the
grain in the film stock, and they linger over certain closeups to let us appreciate
colors and textures in combination–the light blue fuzziness of Jane’s
wool cap, for example.

Outside Providence
is tough and pretty lean, and it moves along at a brisk clip, but in its own
subtle, almost sneaky way, it’s an intensely sad film. Tim is no genius,
but he’s smart enough to realize the odds are stacked against him, and
as a result he keeps his goals realistic: get laid, smoke good weed, watch the
leaves change color in fall, have a laugh or two with friends and maybe graduate
prep school knowing one or two things he didn’t know before. He says on
many occasions that he’s probably not going to transcend his class, and
he’s most likely right.

Corrente specializes in
stories like Outside Providence–stories of limited lives, where
the characters live moment to moment. He’s not a particularly inventive
or stylish director, but considering his choice of subject matter–mundane,
working-class existence–that’s a good thing. He doesn’t condescend
to his characters or tart up their stories with ostentatious editing or look-at-me
camerawork. He has real affection for working-class people. He isn’t cynical
about their chances, and he doesn’t patronize their dreams; he just understands
that transcending your roots isn’t as simple as the movies would like us
to think.