Here's another cliché-riddled caper about a Jewish kid coming of age in 1950s New York. This boy's name is Lenny. He's 14 and his singular mission for the summer before 9th grade is to watch two grown-ups do it.
He had a scheme to watch his mom (Patti LuPone) with her new husband, the sweaty neighborhood butcher (Richard V. Licata). But when Lenny is packed off for three months in Queens with his aunt and uncle (Ilana Levine and Peter Onorati), he makes a discovery beyond his wildest dreams: The next door neighbor is a breathtakingly beautiful nurse named Hedy (the breathtakingly beautiful Gretchen Mol) and a former bra model with an active sex life. And her bedroom window faces an empty lot of overgrown grass -- perfect to hide in with binoculars.
Directed by Jason Alexander (you know, George on "Seinfeld"), seemingly from some kind of do-it-yourself kit, the very first shot in the movie is a camera sweep of a Bronx street packed with every stereotypical Eisenhower era image the director could muster. The walls of Lenny's room are covered with baseball team pennants and pictures, all hanging at angles mathematically calculated to inspire the maximum of nostalgia. The picture's production design is like a Norman Rockwell painting run amok.
Working in his uncle Phil's deli, wide-eyed Lenny (Ryan Merriman, "The Deep End of the Ocean") befriends Hedy, who is a regular customer, and begins to have second thoughts about invading her privacy -- especially after a couple of aborted spy missions inside her house.
Meanwhile, he hooks up with a threesome of kids his own age (two girls, one guy) obsessed with talking (or rather giggling) about sex, which leads to even more clichés about learning the birds and the bees on the sly in this idealized time period. One of the girls, named Alice, is even more sex-obsessed than Lenny and likes to shock him with her savoir-faire. I only mention this because the young actress that plays her, Amy Braverman ("Walking and Talking") is the best thing in the movie. The other two Queens kids deliver their dialogue like they're reading it off of three-by-five cards.
Merriman (who is from Oklahoma but reportedly took to the New York accents like a duck to water) does a good job of playing Lenny's Swiss-cheese knowledge of sex and making this kid likable enough to get behind him for the course of the film. His never-ending narration gets on the nerves, but it's not his fault the story can't tell itself.
While the screenplay for "Just Looking" (by sitcom vet Marshall Karp) has a lot of spirit, Alexander's execution is 100-percent prefabricated. Occasional good laughs usher the story along even though it feels like watching a rerun of a sitcom cannibalized from dozens of similar movies over the years. But even this lingering geniality goes south when the last act abruptly changes gears with a deluge of weirdly uncomfortable drama about the uncle's infidelity and the pregnant aunt's delivery.
When the cataloging moral-of-the-story finale rolls around (it actually begins with the words "That summer I learned..."), there's no longer any way to deny it: "Just Looking" is just hackneyed.