The Dukes
Little Italy Comes to L.A.

I must confess that I am not a fan of heist/caper/con flicks.  The last one I really enjoyed was probably House of Games, and before that The Sting… when I was only ten years old, or something like that.  I just don’t seem to enjoy getting jerked around by scripts and directors who think they’re smarter than the audience, and the stories usually end so predictably.  Even when they don’t—as with Heist or Score, or even Inside Man—they just feel like cheap shots.

I also don’t generally care for the Italian-American all-in-the-family genre. Not since Married to the Mob have I found much appealing in that mode, mostly thanks to the ubiquity—and excellence—of Scorsese’s oeuvre.  After Marty and Francis have had their say, what’s left to contribute except clichés and homages?

What’s more, I haven’t ever been much impressed by L.A.-set films.  They also tend to serve up heaps and heaps of tropes and gimmicks, but never feeling like much more than an extended trip from LAX to Beverly Hills in a cab driven by an English-speaking tour guide with ADD.  Alternatively, they can also just feel like too much time with self-absorbed relatives.  Notable exceptions include Barfly, Alpha Dog, or even this year’s In Search of a Midnight Kiss and Ping Pong Playa—both of which took us to new startlingly new neighborhoods.

Chazz Palminteri as George in The DukesSo the deck was stacked against The Dukes when I sat down to watch it.  It’s a heist film featuring two Italian-American cousins as protagonists, set in L.A.  On the upside, I also knew it was about a down-and-out one-hit-wonder doo-wop quartet trying to make a comeback—so I thought maybe it would be a lot like That Thing You Do, or Ray, or even Dreamgirls: heavy on the music, light on the plot, easy on the ears—with a big, splashy final number.

I was really surprised when it turned out to be a very character-driven drama in which the heist is almost a subplot, the Italian angle feels fresh, we visit a part of L.A. we’ve never really seen on film before, and the music—while omnipresent—never overwhelms the story.

Quite an accomplishment for a first-time director… or not, if you consider the solid career that writer/director Robert Davi has had in front of the camera.  Clearly, he’s been paying attention to the directors with whom he’s worked, and to a lot of the very fine films he’s obviously studied.  While the subject matter of the film is ultimately as insubstantial as grated Parmesan, Davi’s tone and technique make it all feel more like the second coming of Stanley Tucci’s Big Night.

The guts of the story are like breadsticks: Cousins Danny and George, some forty years distant from their musical heyday, barely scrape by while helping out their aunt with her tried-and-true-if-tired Italian restaurant.  They’d love to get back in the music business somehow, but first they’ve got debts to pay off.  So after Danny comes into some inside information about thirty-five pounds of gold, they hatch a plan…  And this being a comedic drama rather than a Mamet film, nobody dies, nobody gets rich, and things all work out in the end.  After a fashion.

So what does Davi do so right here where others have either failed, strongarmed the audience, or just managed to connect familiar dots?

First, Davi has a very strong visual style.  Sure, many of his camera setups and compositions are cribbed from other, greater films—but I honestly can’t recall the last time I’ve been truly impressed by a rear-view mirror shot.  Davi takes nothing for granted, moves the camera when it makes sense, and knows when to leave it the heck alone.

Second, Davi trumps genre conventions by turning them on their heads.  Yes, this is L.A.; there’s no mistaking that.  And yes, were it not for the palm trees, we might mistake the setting for Long Island.  But the L.A. setting allows us to notice Italian families again by taking them out of the cinematic tenements to which they’ve been relegated for too long; and by showing us the checkered-tablecloth side of L.A. instead of The Brown Derby or The Viper Room, the city seems actually lived-in rather than just visited.

Finally, Davi has done an excellent job of casting this film, and coaxing excellent performances out of even the smallest of roles.  Davi and Chazz Palminteri are first-rate as the mismatched but loyal cousins, and familiar faces—including Peter Bogdanovich—fill out the supporting characters.  None of it feels like stuntcasting, favor-calling, or blindered cronyism.  And the characters are all far, far more important than the caper.  Thank God.

But please don’t expect too much of The Dukes.  It’s not the kind of film that people anticipate.  Like a great dish of veal Parmigiana in an out-of-the-way Bourbon Street eatery, it’s just a very, very nice surprise.  Let it sneak up on you.

The Dukes is rated PG-13 for “brief sexuality and drug references.”  I honestly though the film might have gotten away with a PG, it’s that mild, really.  Unlike a Scorsese film, there’s no language, and the sexuality—while a little startling—actually sets up some very worthwhile and warm character moments.  I’d say the film’s most troubling aspect is—you guessed it—the heist itself.  This is a comedy, after all, and while crime doesn’t pay, nobody really pays for the crime, either.  Still, Davi’s script does reflect a real-world sensibility to morality, and the denouement is all about things much more important than money.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg viewed a promotional screener of The Dukes.  Be sure to check back next week for Greg’s interview with director Robert Davi.