Outside Providence

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:18

    Tough But Tender Teens I've 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 Hill, 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 Providence 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.