Cineastes everywhere must have spat their designer coffee all over their copy of Sight & Sound when they discovered that George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh have slain yet another sacred arthouse cow this year. Not content with their bite-sized remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic sci-fi classic Solaris (1972), Welcome to Collinwood (which the pair produced) transports the much-loved Italian comedy Big Deal On Madonna Street (1958) to modern day Cleveland.
Still, while Soderbergh’s Solaris lacked the existential musings that made the original so absorbing, Welcome to Collinwood manages to maintain the irreverence of its source, while adding some razor sharp dialogue and a stellar ensemble cast.
Cosimo (Luiz Guzman), a petty thief from Collinwood (dubbed the ‘Beirut of Cleveland’ by local graffiti), is arrested for stealing a car. While in prison, a lifer offers him a plan for a quick and easy $300,000 score, or ‘bellini’ as it’s know locally. However, in order to get out of the clink, Cosimo needs someone to take the rap for him or – known in hood-lingo as a ‘mullinski’. He gives his girlfriend, Rosalind (Patricia Clarkson), $15,000 to bribe any willing mullinski in Collinwood. She eventually finds her fall guy in small-time boxer, Pero (Sam Rockwell), but not before she’s left a trail of knock-backs who have all cottoned onto the bellini and want in on the deal. When a dismal court performance only serves to extend Cosimo’s sentence, this quirky band of bungling characters decide to put together the heist themselves.
Steven Soderbergh plucked writer-director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo from relative obscurity after viewing their short, Pieces (a comedy about a failing Italian toupee business), at the 1997 Slamdance Film Festival. For their feature debut, the Russos made the wise decision of using a tried and tested storyline and transplanting it to their home turf of Cleveland. The locale has an archaic feeling of urban decay that matches the subject matter, but being at ease with their surroundings and having an established plot in place has also allowed the filmmakers to concentrate on honing the dialogue, which comes sharp and fast.
The Russo brothers exhibit a Coen-esque taste for surreal characters; loan shark nuns and George Clooney’s wheelchair-bound safecracker (who now teaches the art to would-be crims), for instance. Their talent for visual comedy is yet to be put to any real test, as it borrows so heavily from Big Deal on Madonna Street that it is difficult to see any distinguishing style from the directors. Traditional slapstick is blended with clever wordplay, but these sometimes make uneasy bedfellows and only serve to make the film a little uneven in tone.
Indie hero Rockwell has got his work cut out with his character, Pero – playing moron, romantic lead and hero all rolled into one. Though his sterling performance charms you into forgetting this multiplicity, you can’t help but feel sorry for Rockwell, as his move into the mainstream sees him star in another mediocre film after The Green Mile (1999) and this year’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
The consistently excellent William H. Macy’s Riley – a budding artist and baby-cradling accomplice – and Michael Jeter’s gummy old thief Toto, who looks like Charlie Chaplin after a lifetime on the sauce, help to sway the film away from what could be a below-par heist comedy to an above-average character study. Welcome to Collinwood is funny, obscure, charming and downright silly. But, and it had to be said at some point, it’s not as good as the original.