(director/writer: Abel Ferrara; screenwriters: Scott Pardo/from a story by Cassandra De Jesus; cinematographer: Ken Kelsch; editors: Suzanne Pillsbury/Bill Pankow/Patricia Bowers; music: Schoolly D; cast: Drea de Matteo (The Wife), Lillo Brancato (The Husband), Ice-T (Kidnapper), Lisa Valens (The Daughter); Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Pierre Kalfon; Pathfinder Pictures; 2001)
“An undeveloped story.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Abel Ferrara (“Bad Lieutenant”/”King of New York”) directed and co-wrote this gritty urban crime drama based on a story by Cassandra De Jesus. It’s set in New York City in 1993, before Mayor Rudy Giuliani replaced David Dinkins as mayor and waged war on the drug dealers. It’s disturbingly played as a classic Christmas story, which it may very well be except the main characters are drug lords and dirty cops.
The film opens a few days before Christmas when a young upwardly mobile immigrant Latino couple (she’s from Puerto Rico and he’s from the Dominican Republic), identified only as the Wife and the Husband (Lillo Brancato Jr. and Drea de Matteo, Sopranos regular), are videotaping their daughter Lisa’s (Lisa Valens) performance in her private school’s holiday pageant. Afterwards they take the girl out for a Central Park carriage ride and then to visit Santa at the FAO Schwarz toy store–where Lisa asks Santa for a Party Girl doll. Lisa’s father is unable to purchase this out-of-stock hot-item even though he waves a fist full of money in front of the salesclerk. The couple are low-level drug dealers who have runners peddle their cocaine in the city streets. They are living out their version of the American Dream, driving a BMW, supporting their extended Caribbean families, and residing on the sly in a luxury high-rise apartment on the city’s Upper East Side.
After a hectic day of Christmas shopping and dispensing Christmas gifts to their business associates, the couple meticulously packages the drugs in envelopes with the help of their relatives in the gang’s East Harlem factory. They then go to a Bronx pawn shop, where they pay an exorbitant price for a Party Girl doll. It is during this time frame that Ice-T and his gang of corrupt cops kidnap the Husband and ask for “a lot of money” to release him. Ice-T harangues the Wife about how useless her hubby is, that they should quit selling drugs, that he hates Dominicans, and goes on to say that he does not understand how she could be in love with such a loser. The Wife is told to give him all their money or her hubby is a goner. The tough-as-nails Wife and the menacing but whiny Ice-T carry on an absurd exchange of words, while she remains only interested in saving her hubby.
The movie ends with the scrawl “To be cont…” It never offers a resolution or a judgment or a sincere conviction on what is going down, instead it relies on getting into the heads of the vacuous drug dealing couple and to show how genuine is their parental love for their innocent but spoiled 11-year-old daughter. The main characters are pictured as hard-workers who could care less about ruining other people’s lives as long as they are rolling in dough. They are offered as living proof that bad people can also have family values. The couple’s biggest problems seem to be what will hubby say he does on “career day” at Lisa’s school, if they no longer deal drugs will Lisa have to drop out of private school and how will they pay the rent for their luxury pad. It was that kind of ridiculous pic where the realistic drug dealing atmosphere blends in with an undeveloped story that didn’t seem to know how to close the deal or say what it meant with any clarity. Instead it leaves everything up in the air with a cloud of moral uncertainty. The kidnapping sequence was done so ineptly, that the story became unbelievable.
REVIEWED ON 9/29/2004 GRADE: C