A film review by David N. Butterworth
Copyright 2004 David N. Butterworth
** (out of ****)
The idea of taking Charles Dickens's "Oliver Twist" and "updating" it (by
turning London pick-pockets into Toronto street hustlers) might have sounded
good on paper but by the time this dreary, overwrought, and at times sadly laughable
drama spills forth it becomes crystal meth clear it wasn't.
Former-television-actor-turned-big-screen-writer/director Jacob Tierney's
intentions are strictly honorable with the film bringing attention to the plight
of Toronto's disaffected youth, many of them junkies who feel little choice
but to turn tricks for a "living." As one character asks of another in the
film, "Do you work (hustle) so that you can do this (shoot up)?" "No. I do
this so that I can work." That's the most poignant observation in a film that
suffers from a bad case of wet-behind-the-ears direction.
This is only Tierney's second film behind the camera and it shows.
Likewise the writing--and the obsequious song score--leave much to be desired
and from a production standpoint the piece unfolds like a filmed version of
the Toronto Plays and Players amateur production night... and it's not very
well filmed either! The opening shot announces quite plainly that "no tripods
were used in the production of this motion picture" and lighting, too, appears
to be an afterthought. That said the film is more dogmatic than Dogme 95.
Amateur, with one or two exceptions, also describes the film's acting talent.
Joshua Close, who plays the runaway Oliver with the David-like (as in Michaelangelo's
David) good looks, lacks charisma and acting chops; Michèle Barbara Pelletier
as Nancy, owner of "The Three Cripples" diner in which a lot of the action takes
place, is stiff and obvious, as is Gary Farmer as the brutish Fagin. Disquietingly,
both Pelletier and Farmer have several telephone "conversations" with someone
named Bill and it soon becomes patently clear to the viewer that THERE'S NOBODY
ON THE OTHER END OF THE LINE!! Oliver? Nancy? Fagin? Bill? They didn't
go and use the same names as Dickens did they? They certainly did. Now that's
either P.T. Anderson-styled chutzpah or a serious miscalculation (and my money's
on the latter).
The Artful Dodger (or simply Dodge as he goes by here) is played by Nick
Stahl (from "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," "In the Bedroom," and Larry
Clark's obnoxious "Bully") and, thankfully, he's one of the previously mentioned
exceptions. I've always liked Stahl, who keeps picking interesting, non-obvious
projects, and he delivers another thoughtful, down-and-dirty performance. Dodge
is a flesh-and-blood disciple: hard-edged yet scared--and scarred--by life;
down on his luck; battling occupational demons as well as familial ones. Three
scenes involve Dodge's brother David (Tygh Runyan), who shows up to offer some
self-righteous flagellation--two of these are so identically shot and scripted
you can't tell them apart and a third is just too incredible (and distasteful)
Stahl's presence and abilities keep you watching while Tierney's script
renders almost everything else inconsequential. It's the idea that got away,
a conceit that might have worked with tighter direction, convincing performers
and, perhaps, a modicum of meaning, rather than meandering. Of course, there's
nothing here a handful of show-stopping production numbers--or a good steam
"Please sir can I have some more?" Not bloody likely.
David N. Butterworth
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