Sunday 24 July 2011

American Cousins (2003)


Phew… thought I was going to miss today’s entry. Anyway, today marks our first trip into the territory of Scottish cinema. One of the things that Scottish people hear most from people in North America is how everyone there originally comes from Scotland. Irish people get that a lot, too. Everyone has family back in Scotland whom they either just came back from visiting or will be visiting soon. Americans seem to be very proud to have roots there, even if it’s a distant thing. In 2003, writer Sergio Casci wrote a script about two guys from New Jersey finding it necessary to stay with their Scottish relatives and the things that can happen when you’ve got family in the right place at the right time.

After their latest deal goes sour, two American mobsters, Gino (Danny Nucci) and Settimo (Dan Hedaya), take refuge in a Glasgow cafe owned by their Scottish cousin Roberto (Gerald Lepkowski), who cares more for frying fish and collecting stamps. Gino and Settimo try to repay Roberto’s hospitality by chasing off some thugs who wants his property, but they have problems of their own.

Casci’s script for American Cousins has an intriguing premise and is well handled for the most part. It’s a classic ‘fish out of water’ play, manages to keep the differences and similarities in pretty good balance. There is also some great cracks of humour and a plot device involving half-cooked chips shows that there is certainly some invention going on. If there is something to be quibbled with in the writing, it’s that perhaps the some characters are a little bit stock (they always tend to be in these types of stories), and that it maybe has a bit too much going on. There’s the mobster’s fitting in with the shop, a love triangle, the debt collectors, the English thugs hired to track down the mobsters… it’s all decent enough and enjoyable, but there is the feeling of being spread a bit thin. The relationship between Roberto and Alice, his assistant manager, feels like it’s taking leaps that aren’t sufficiently set up, so it seems a bit fast. Also, the ending is a bit much to take, but if the movie has won you over by this point, it won’t change your final opinion of it. Overall, though, it’s still got a good sense of personality.

Donald Coutts direction is rather inconsistent, having trouble flitting between the contrasting tones of the piece (tough mob guy bit followed by heart-warming romantic bit followed by funny bit with grandfather), though it does show an active engagement with the material. Some moments should feel bigger, more substantial, but there isn’t really enough behind them to fully sell the effect he’s shooting for. It is largely left to the actors to do this. For example, a scene between Settimo and Roberto talking about a painting of the family doesn’t quite have the connection it should, largely because it spends most of the time going from only one or two angles. Hedaya and Lepkowski do their job, but it still feels distant. It should try to create more of a relationship between these two men and the painting, and therefore with the family, and therefore with us. Also, the ceilidh scene doesn’t quite capture the full charge of these kinds of spirited dances… and I say that as someone who hates them.

The acting overall is of good standard, with most being convincing in their roles. Hedaya and Nucci serve well as the two New Jersey fish out of water in Glasgow, with Hedaya keeping it nicely reserved and Nucci being a bit more of the loudmouth. Lepkowski carries the ebb and flow of Roberto well, even though there are occasions when the script does seem to make a bit of a leap and the direction doesn’t always follow him. Shirley Henderson does make Alice endearing, although she also isn’t quite matched by the direction. Russell Hunter is the best on show as Roberto’s grandfather, managing to capture the few moments of real heart. It’s not all great news, with the other end of the scale being held by Stevan Rimkus, whose performance is wildly all over the place. At one point, he’s a cackling maniac, but only seconds later, he’s much less so. His is the one show that really stands out as being too much for the film to handle.

American Cousins is a perfectly charming film. It’s got warmth, humour and also has some touching moments. The script does spread itself a bit thin, the direction isn't terribly strong, not every performance is up to scratch, and it does feel more like a TV expedition than a big screen one, but it certainly does do enough to satisfy as a viewing experience.

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