PARK CITY -- There is no escaping the old neighborhood, or more pointedly, the old man in this flashback to the rite-of-passage summer of four Queens teens. With an uptown indie cast of Robert Downey Jr., Dianne Wiest
, Chazz Palminteri
and even a quick whiff of Rosario Dawson
, this coming-of-age saga might steam up initial boxoffice based on the marquee, but word-of-mouth will flatten this sweaty saga.
Told in a muddled flashback form as Dito (Downey) re-creates his youth, "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" traces back to summer 1986 when Dito and his three not-so-magnificent cronies trolled the mean streets of Queens, nearly under the Hellsgate Bridge. Oozing testosterone and spewing their bruised attitudes, they are petty predators, harassing the girls, tormenting the store owners and confronting their least-favored ethnic neighbors.
In their own minds, they are big men on the block. But, ultimately, they are afraid to leave their tiny world. It's no wonder since they congregate around Dito's small-minded father (Palminteri), who rants about the idiocy of ever leaving New York. In essence, the fearful foursome channel their energies into street thuggery, battling Puerto Ricans and anyone who resembles an outsider. Not surprisingly, it's an outsider, a Scottish student, who encourages young Dito to follow his dream and move to California. That's the main dramatic tension: Dito's tug between leaving home in order to live, or staying in that discomfort zone where he will surely wither.
Unfortunately, screenwriter-director Dito Montiel
(who distilled from his own memoirs) never musters our sympathies for Dito to leave and find himself. After a while, the crudeness and venality of the central characters proves as stifling as the incessant Queens summer heat does to our dubious protagonists.
While there are dashes of jarringly raw dialogue and doses of from-the-block swagger, "Saints" struts its stuff mainly with only dull fury. Montiel's storytelling bangs ahead in a cacophony of dull repetition: There's too much ditto to this Dito.
Further enervating the drama are the uneven technical contributions. The tepid music of Jonathan Elias and the lumbering pace from Montiel and editors Peter Tellefsen and Jake Pushinsky
combine to drain the personal stories.
The performances, including Downey's properly weary turn as the drained-out Dito, are what's best about "Saints". As the paterfamilias is in denial about his own health and the worth of his own philosophical spewing, Palminteri bursts with mule-headed rage; he is a ferocious and credible malevolence. In a brief appearance, Dawson captures the vigor and staying power of a young woman who has not been beaten down by her neighborhood's unsavory saints.
A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS
Original Media, Xingu Films, Belladonna Prods.
Screenwriter-director: Dito Montiel
Producers: Trudy Styler, Travis Swords
, Charlie Corwin
, Clara Markowicz
Executive producers: Sting, Bobby Sager, Peter Sahagen
, Armand Mackey
Director of photography: Eric Gautier
Production designer: Jody Asnes
Music: Jonathan Elias
Costume designer: Sandra Hernandez
Editors: Christopher Tellefsen
, Jake Pushinsky
Dito: Robert Downey Jr.
Young Dito: Shia LaBeouf
Monty: Chazz Palminteri
Flori: Dianne Wiest
Young Antonio: Channing Tatum
Young Laurie: Melonie Diaz
Mike O'Shea: Martin Compston
Older Antonio: Eric Roberts
Laurie: Rosario Dawson
No MPAA rating
Running time -- 90 minutes