Basing their premiere feature on the little-seen Italian comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), the writing, directing Russos set their film -- a finely tuned, brilliantly designed, screwball romp -- in the Ohio city of the title, which they've drawn as decrepit, to say the least. Collinwood is painted as low rent, low wage, and low class, where every sidewalk square is cracked and so are the people that walk on them.
In dim, dingy Collinwood, two-bit thief Cosimo (the quietly manic Luis Guzmán) is locked in the clink, dressed in black-and-white stripes, and sitting on a secret: There's a fortune buried behind a building in town. Cosimo can get his share on the "bellini" -- a once-in-a-lifetime deal -- but needs to find someone willing to confess to his crime and do his time -- that's a "mullinsky." The creation of this ethnically based slang is one of the more genius touches of the script.
So Cosimo's girl, Rosalind (Patricia Clarkson, playing the tough moll perfectly) hits the streets to offer $15,000 to whomever will play the mullinsky. But loose lips sink Cosimo's plans, and before you can say "keep it on the QT," a merry band of wackos all want in on the big bellini.
The cast that makes up that rogues gallery is superb in the film: Isaiah Washington, affecting all manner of class and manners as Leon; William H. Macy as Riley, frustrated by his wife's imprisonment, and protective of the cute baby on his back; Andrew Davoli, playing Basil as a young scruffy dreamer in love with Leon's sister; Michael Jeter, turning old-timer Toto into a raspy, bumbling knucklehead; and, as the charming Pero, the exceptional Sam Rockwell, using such a wide array of comic gifts -- line delivery, physicality, timing -- that a strong case can be made for sending an Oscar nomination his way come early next year.
Even when the Russos add more characters to the mix, like Jennifer Esposito's innocent immigrant girl, a maid who holds the key (literally) to the fortune, everyone stays in the midst of the action. A subplot between Pero and the girl adds such delightful heart and humor to the tale, but we never feel as if the Russos have forgotten about the rest of the hapless crew. Add in a couple of brilliant scenes with producer Clooney as a shell-shocked safecracker, and this film is almost constant fun.
By designing the downtrodden Collinwood with a timeless feel -- it might be the 1930s, but it might be today -- the Russos inject their goofy caper tale with a Dead End Kids kind of charm from the get-go. They then let their superlative, classically styled script and inspired cast work the kind of magic seen in the American comedies of yesteryear.
While the final act loses a little edge and pace, so much more makes up for it. Anthony and Joe Russo have created a zippy, enormously entertaining heist movie that, with a kind heart at its core, encompasses the styles of yesterday, today, and if we're lucky, maybe even tomorrow.
Who's gotta go?
Run time: 86 mins
In Theaters: Friday 18th October 2002
Box Office USA: $75.2k
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 54%
Fresh: 35 Rotten: 30
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Starring: William H. Macy as Riley, Isaiah Washington as Leon, Sam Rockwell as Pero, Michael Jeter as Toto, Luis Guzmán as Cosimo, George Clooney as Jerzy, Patricia Clarkson as Rosalind, Jennifer Esposito as Carmela, Andy Davoli as Basil, Gabrielle Union as Michelle
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