Palookaville (1996): Alan Taylor’s Feature, Inspired by Fellini’s I Vitelloni and Levinson’s Diner

Alan Taylor’s Palookaville is another film that owes its existence Levinson’s classic Diner, which itself was inspired by Fellini’s 1953 masterpiece, I Vitelloni.

The New Jersey layabouts in Palookaville make the loose-ends L.A. guys in Swingers seem motivated. The movie is about the serio-comic adventures and hapless doings of would-be romantics and would-be toughs who botch everything they do.

Scripted by David Epstein, and based on Italo Calvino’s short stories, Palookaville, is inspired more by Italian than American pictures. The filmmakers credit Mario Monicelli’s heist movie, Big Deal on Madonna Street (about a grand pawn shop heist that goes awry), and Rachel Portman’s music suggests a cross between Nino Rota’s scores for Fellini’s movies. But the most immediate inspiration comes from I Vitelloni, which deals with a bunch of guys who have hung around the neighborhood for too long.

The film’s novelty is the stronger female presence–the women have more sense than the “self-unemployed” men who are always looking for a way out of their mundane lives. “Boys don’t always grow up,” says acerbic hooker June (Frances McDormand). “They age, they put on weight, they lose hair, they grow lumps and warts, they have regrets, lose their tempers and they blame women, but they do not automatically grow up and become men.”

Rejected by his wife, Sid (William Forsythe), the trio’s loneliest, lives with his dogs in an apartment he’s about to get evicted from. By chance he meets Enid (Bridgit Ryan), who works in a thrift store. Jerry (Adam Trese) is married to Betty (Lisa Gay Hamilton), who supports the family, and they have a baby, but Jerry is the actual boy. Russ (Vincent Gallo), the self-styled leader, lives with his bullying mother, sister and brother-in-law, a surly cop. Russ is not adult enough to acknowledge his involvement with a teenage girl who lives across the alley; he sneaks through the bedroom window when she signals the road is clear. Russ also gets thrown out of June’s house whenever a paying customer appears.

Palookaville begins with a heist of a jewelry store that goes disastrously wrong, leading the guys to discuss whether they are cut out for a criminal career. “Don’t think of it that way,” says Russ, “it’s just a momentary shift in lifestyles.” Taylor’s compassionate humanism is reflected in his sweet-natured heroes, New Jersey bozos who can’t help but be good samaritans. The unemployed factory workers, who break into a doughnut shop mistaking it as a jewelry store, endlessly talk about their respective love interests.

Basically bumbling clowns, who are not craving to score big, they are naive, anti-macho in a way that deviates from American male characterization. Hence, instead of using machine guns, they plan to use orange plastic toy pistols. As preparation for the robbery of an armored car holding cash from a local supermarket, they rent an obscure 1950 movie, Armored Car Robbery. Their outlandish scheme involves tinkering with the vehicle’s overheated radiator at a particular location, and then attacking the truck with their toys.

Each character is a comically eccentric sad sack: Russ is an inept ladies’ man; Sid is a dog-lover whose attempts at a taxi service for the elderly fail when customers refuse to sit next to his stinking animals; dreamy Jerry is a reluctant tag-along whose wife, Betty (Lisa Gay Hamilton), works in the supermarket that uses the armored car. During the initial caper, they chisel their way through a brick wall and find themselves in a bakery; unfazed, Jerry steals puts some pastries under his coat as a surprise for Betty.

The drab, working-class world these inept thieves inhabit feels more like a small Italian town in the 1950s than a decaying New Jersey industrial city, which may explain why the movie failed commercially. This dislocation derives from the source material: Calvino’s stories were more relevant in war-ravaged Italy. As Stephen Holden noted, Palookaville ends on a sweetly ironic note, the staple of European caper films, with its old-time movie nostalgia and goofy fun intact.