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'Welcome To Collinwood'

Cleveland comedy rocks

Friday, November 15, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

The gang that couldn't crack a safe straight has a helluva time running amok --and so do we -- in "Welcome to Collinwood," one of the quirkiest, funniest action comedies I've seen since the Eisenhower Administration.

'Welcome To Collinwood'

RATING: R for language

STARRING: William H. Macy, Sam Rockwell, George Clooney

DIRECTORS: Anthony and Joe Russo

WEB SITE: welcometocollinwood


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Actually, it was the Reagan-Bush "boom" administrations of the '80s that produced disaster areas like Collinwood in Rust-Belt Cleveland -- much like Braddock, Aliquippa and similar disaster areas with which Western Pennsylvanians are intimately familiar.

Leaving aside who produced them, it's the shabby mise-en-scene for a shaggy-dog story of the "perfect crime," a jewel heist imperfectly committed by a half-dozen bungling losers. But if the crime is far from perfection, the dual direction by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo is close to it, akin to the work of another set of brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen, in "Fargo," et al.

Not least among those fraternal connections is the presence of William H. Macy -- who gets better and more bizarre with every role he plays -- as the gang's most handicapped member (with the most absurd sideburns): He never can do anything, go anywhere or perform his criminal duties without holding the baby his incarcerated wife left behind.

His fellow crooks, meanwhile, are petty thieves encumbered with issues of their own: Sexy Sam Rockwell, the mastermind, keeps getting distracted from the plan by sexy Jennifer Esposito. Ancient "professional" bank burglar Michael Jeter keeps losing his pants. Luis Guzman keeps failing to get out of jail. Patricia Clarkson, Andrew Davoli and Isaiah Washington keep adding to the project's confusion and subtracting from its efficient execution.

First-time directors Anthony and Joe Russo were discovered by actor George Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh, who saw and fell in love with the Russos' low-budget black comedy "Pieces" (1997), the story of three crazy brothers' failing Cleveland hairpiece business.

Clooney and Soderbergh are the Russos' mentors and co-producers of this film. Clooney's additional contribution comes in the form of a whimsical cameo as the wheelchair-bound instructor engaged to impart his less than state-of-the-art safecracking techniques to the gang.

It is a wonderful acting ensemble, whose multiple down-and-out characters you come to know and savor individually. Most delightful, in addition to marvelous Macy, is Rockwell as a slightly long-in-the-tooth Travolta, still stayin' alive somehow from "Saturday Night Fever," and Jeter as the extremely long-in-the-tooth safecracker.

The Russos and their script borrow heavily from (but acknowledge their debt to) Mario Monicelli's classic comedy "Big Deal on Madonna Street" (1958). This picture also reminds me of the great unsung Howard Zieff satire "Slither," back in 1973.

Bonus points for superb music! From "Toledo Polkamotion" to excellent original songs by Mark Mothersbaugh (of seminal New Wave band "Devo" fame and creator of the immortal "Pee-wee's Playhouse" theme), the soundtrack is buoyantly joyous and soulful by turns. You'll never hear a prettier ballad than "Maybe It's You" during the final credits.

Not all its gags work, but, all in all, "Collinwood" is a deliciously welcome, creative hoot.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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