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STRAIGHTMAN(director/writer: Ben Berkowitz; screenwriter: Ben Redgrave; cinematographer: Jerome Biron; editor: Michael Palmerio; music: Joaquin Dell Puente & Ben Berkowitz; cast: Ben Berkowitz (David Leibowitz), Joaquin de la Puente (Carlos), Rachel Tomlinson (Rebecca), Butch Jerenic (Maxine Miller), Ben Redgrave (Jack Wester), Chuck Winans (Club Owner), Scott Holme (Tommy), Douglas Walker (Union Station Trick), Victoria Kallay (Isabel), Seema Sueko (Mirabel); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Ben Berkowitz & Ben Redgrave; Vagrant Films/Water Bearer Films; 2002)
“Packed some punch.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ben Berkowitz and Benjamin Redgrave are the stars, writers, and producers of Straightman, and Berkowitz in addition is the director of this intriguing ultra-low-budget indie romantic comedy/drama. Straightman poses as an ensemble piece, but the capable ensemble cast is not given enough to do. This is basically a two-character film. The bulk of it centers around two men who are trying to deal with their relationships and their own identities, as the story deals in an intelligent way with a male friendship between a heterosexual and a gay. What they both have in common is a desire to have a permanent monogamous relationship with someone of their sexual orientation.

David Leibowitz (Berkowitz) is a big-bellied, hairy, slobbish overeater and drinker, loquacious, self-centered, 26-year-old Jewish aspiring comedian who manages a comedy club in Chicago. Jack Wester is a handsome, inarticulate, depressive, self-educated, gentile construction worker, who is about the same age as his best friend David.

David doesn’t think of himself as a nice guy, but he believes his friendship with Jack is real and means something. David prides himself on being a womanizer who finds it normal to sleep with a different girl every night even though he has a girlfriend, Rebecca. He looks upon his cheating as normal behavior.

Jack’s a nice guy who is in a misbegotten relationship with Maxine where he does not cheat, but has no enthusiasm and can’t tell himself honestly why. Because of his chilly behavior, long pauses for silence and lack of lovemaking skills, she dumps him. The final straw is when he would rather look up a word in a dictionary than pay attention to her, as he’s more concerned with an argument over a word he had earlier on with David than with taking her to bed. This breakup devastates Jack, as he feels more lost and insecure than ever.

Meanwhile, things are also not going so hot for David. Rebecca leaves him because he upset her by asking for his apartment key back. This comes after he returns from work and finds her there and feels she invaded his privacy, as he could have been bringing a girl home. In a cute gesture, Rebecca takes back her vacuum cleaner. David and Jack move into a ghetto apartment together to save rent money and quell their loneliness. Jack comes out-of-the-closet and admits to having numerous anonymous gay affairs, as we see him getting picked up by a trick in the Union Station and getting it up the ass in the men’s room.

David wants to continue being friends despite his discomfort over living with a gay man. In his nervousness of how to deal with that, he cracks lame fag jokes, jabs his roommate with friendly punches to show he still cares about him (still too uncomfortable for hugs of friendship) and continues to have many affairs even though they give him no real pleasure. Jack doesn’t appreciate how their relationship has changed, as he finds David would rather joke than listen. Jack reminds David that when he went out with women he listened to all his stories about them. But the men relate better when they find that each wants a sincere permanent relationship and that for some reason they can’t find a partner who shares the same values. David gets rejected by one of his casual dates, Isabel, when he tells her that he loves her and wants a permanent relationship, rather than just balling her on occasions. Jack has a hot relationship with a fellow blue-collar worker Carlos, but when he catches him coming out of a restaurant with another man he decides to move on and not lose respect for himself.

The movie registers so well despite its lack of plot and the slightness of its story because the portrayal between the two men is so affecting and sensitive, and the film tunes into modern urban man’s angst and alienation as it pulls out of the hat many painful truths about sex, identity, relationships, being gay or Jewish, and yearnings for finding something special in life. These two find that they need each other despite their different sexual outlooks since they only have each other, and this makes them open up even more to what’s eating away at their hard to penetrate insides.

Warning: spoiler to follow.

Unfortunately the film ended on an awkward note and couldn’t follow through on how to deal with such maddening personal issues and instead left their situation hanging in mid air, as David leaves Chicago to seek his nirvana and Jack remains waiting for a new day. But these flaws do not take away from how sharp the humor is and how authentic is the dialague and situation. This character driven dramatization about the need for a tender friendship grew out of some theater acting classes and casting their theater friends in parts about an evolving story both invented and pieced together from their life experiences. It was filmed guerrilla style and was mostly improvised. It reminds me of the realistic, biting, and free flowing films directed by John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh, though not of the same caliber; yet it still packed some punch.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”