The Pope of Greenwich Village

January 21, 2013

popeofgThe opening-credits sequence of The Pope of Greenwich Village promises much: As Frank Sinatra’s voice caresses the air with “The Summer Wind,” we see a man meticulously preparing himself for an evening out. He slips on an expensive jacket, natty tie, classy accessories. He walks out into the evening with smooth self-assurance.

The upshot of this is that the guy, Charlie, is a maitre d’ at a fancy restaurant. Still, he knows what he’s about, and he’s got great dreams. He and his girlfriend, Diane, plan to break out of their home in Little Italy and own a restaurant in the country someday.

Charlie’s got a problem, however. The problem is he’s bound by blood to a perpetual loser named Paulie, his third cousin. Paulie, working as a waiter at Charlie’s restaurant, promptly gets them both fired when he won’t stop stealing money.

Out on the street, Paulie comes up with a new scheme. He buys a share of a racehorse—he’s heard the horse is the offspring of a champion, by means of “artificial inspiration”—and then plans a burglary to have enough money to bet big when the horse comes in a winner. Paulie drags a reluctant, unemployed Charlie into the plot, without telling him that the payroll they’re going to take belongs to the local underworld kingpin.

It’s one of those movies in which the characters keep getting deeper and deeper into trouble. The Pope isn’t a depressing movie because of this, however. The only depressing thing is that so little has been done with a potentially rich subject.

Vincent Patrick, whose maiden screenplay this is (he adapted his same-named novel), has things going in all directions. Charlie’s concern for his helpless, no-good cousin is touching, but his gruff devotion isn’t really given enough background to make it comprehensible. It becomes tough to believe that the family connection is enough. And Diane’s character is never successfully integrated into the story; after a while she just disappears.

Director Stuart Rosenberg, who might have brought the film’s tangential elements together, just contributes to the mess. He doesn’t seem to be equipped to impose any overriding sensibility that might have brought things into focus.

If the film is a rather enjoyable mess, it’s because of the cast. Daryl Hannah is appealing as Diane, and there are well-turned supporting bits by Kenneth McMillan, as a thief who helps Charlie and Paulie; Burt Young, as the gangland chief; and Tony Musante, as one of Young’s henchmen, who has tears in his eyes as he tells his old friend Paulie he’ll have to maim him.

Eric Roberts—most recently the psycho husband in Star 80—manages to be both studied and overwrought as Paulie. Oddly enough, that’s appropriate for this character, but Roberts would benefit from watching his co-star, Mickey Rourke, for a lesson in natural screen acting.

Rourke, the hairdresser of Diner and the motorcycle boy in Coppola’s Rumble Fish, is short, not conventionally handsome, and speaks softly most of the time. But he’s got the kind of screen presence that inspires immediate audience sympathy, and when he’s on screen in The Pope, the film blows through with the ease and pleasant feeling of the summer wind.

First published in the Herald, June 26, 1984

Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke: what a set it must have been. IMDb says this movie was prepared and steered through pre-production by Michael Cimino, which conjures up a wilder project.


The Clan of the Cave Bear

September 2, 2011

Advance reports suggested that the film version of The Clan of the Cave Bear might be among the most laughable goofs of recent memory—evidently preview audiences were hooting at the film, and Warner Bros. has been postponing the release since it was first announced for last summer.

The movie arrived a few days ago (without an advance screening for the press, often a bad harbinger). As it turns out, it’s not as inept or as ludicrous as had been rumored.

It’s not particularly good, mind you, but it’s certainly not Heaven’s Gate among the cavemen. Or should we say cavepeople, since the film projects a post-feminist attitude upon the hapless Neanderthals.

I’m one of the last English speaking people to have avoided Jean M. Auel’s book, but I assume this feminist theme is carried on from the source material. It has been adapted for film by John Sayles, who often writes screenplays for hire so he can finance his own, self-directed movies (The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Brother from Another Planet).

I hope Sayles makes something good from the fee he got for Cave Bear, because there’s certainly not much of him in it. Sayles’ gift for dialogue is, understandably, not in evidence, since the characters speak in grunts and hand signs (there are subtitles and narration).

The story is barely there: About 35,000 years ago, a young, blonde-haired tyke named Ayla, whom we are to understand is Cro-Magnon, is picked up by a band of dark, hairy Neanderthals and brought into their clan by a witch doctor (James Remar) and a medicine woman (Pamela Reed). The little girl is raised by these sympathetic people until she becomes the long-legged Daryl Hannah (from Splash), who shows early signs of wanting to play with weapons, heretofore a male domain.

Her struggles are primarily with a mean boy (Thomas G. Waites), an early espouser of the Playboy philosophy, who will someday lead the tribe. He wants her thrown out of the cave, and she must kneel in his presence and submit to his sexual needs. Only the men are allowed to hunt, and the women provide them with food. Jeez, these guys are really Neanderthals.

Ayla becomes the first feminist when she finds a slingshot and starts aiming stones at a stump of wood, which begins her journey toward self-sufficiency.

The film is really not that awful. But it seems there are some stories that can be conjured up in prose that can’t be similarly treated in movies, and this is one of them. It’s tough to believe the gorgeous Hannah (who is otherwise pretty good) as a Cro-Magnon woman who will someday evolve into modern man. She’s already there, even if she doesn’t shave her legs.

Michael Chapman, the former cinematographer whose only previous film as director was All the Right Moves, gives everything a respectful, ordinary gloss. However, there’s an exciting scene in which the young chieftains battle an enormous bear, and the bear is one of the greatest I’ve ever seen in the movies.

One question: if Ayla brought her proto-feminist ways to bear on such an early form of human civilization, how did we fall so far behind again in the succeeding 35,000 years? I guess we’ll have to look to the sequels to find out.

First published in the Herald, February 12, 1986

No sequel would there be for the movie series, thanks to this film’s reception. And when I say “Heaven’s Gate for cavemen,” I don’t mean Heaven’s Gate was bad, but that Heaven’s Gate was the standard for big-scale flops. Although I suppose if we apply the latter definition this movie was the Heaven’s Gate for cavemen.