Naples is famous for its antiquities, its pizza, Sophia Loren, and the brilliant comic actor Totò, among other things — and infamous for hosting soccer star Diego Maradona during his "wasted years," as well as for that city's ongoing "sanitation strike" with its piles of uncollected garbage. Many people blame those two "infamous" items on the Neapolitan crime organization, the Camorra. And if we believe writer Roberto Saviano and director Matteo Garrone's thrillingly bleak crime pic, Gomorrah, Maradona's cocaine problem and the moldering refuse are only the most visible signs of the Camorra epidemic in Naples and the region of Campania. Things are much worse beneath the surface.
It's about time someone made a big, important, international movie about crime in Naples — the Sicilian Mafia has enjoyed an uncontested lock on the American movie imagination for too long, with occasional forays by gangsters from Latin America, China, Russia, and our own homegrown thugs. Gomorrah (the original Italian title left off the "H," to pun on the name of the iniquitous biblical town) makes up for lost time by following at least five separate narrative threads — à la Traffic, Syriana, etc. — about dirty deeds spiraling around each other in the weed patches and disco-bars. The corruption reaches into everyone's lives in one way or another.
A thirteen-year-old grocery delivery boy named Totó (Salvatore Abruzzese) jumps at the chance to become a drug mule. Marco and Sweet Pea (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone), a pair of stupid young guys hung up on watching Al Pacino's Scarface, steal a cache of guns and fancy themselves freelance outlaws. As we watch them joyously taking potshots with grenade launchers and assault rifles, we can guess they'll end up dead soon. Mild-mannered Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a bagman for the mob, dispenses cash and makes collections in the tough housing project where Totó lives, in the suburb of Scampia. And a master tailor named Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), who cuts high-fashion gowns for one of the Camorra's business operations, dares to sell his trade secrets to the local Chinese.
The most insidious of these enterprising lawbreakers is Franco (Toni Servillo), a smooth-talking, well dressed businessman who does city officials and industrialists all over Italy a great service — he gets rid of their dangerous waste materials in the Campania countryside, in rock quarries, under farms, wherever he can, at bargain prices, with no thought about the effect of the chemicals on people, not to mention peaches. Of course the drug rackets are the most lucrative, but the deflated spirit of the characters is a reflection of the sickness of the land. The bountiful Italian countryside is being poisoned for quick cash, and next to that, all the dope deals, street-corner assassinations, and fistfuls of Euros are meaningless, except as ugly slices of local color in this provocative, diamond-hard crime movie.
At least one of Gomorrah's non-actors has been arrested since the film was made (for extortion). Writer Saviano, on whose book the film is based, reportedly had to leave Italy because of death threats. And we're informed in the epilogue crawl that Neapolitan crime syndicate money has been invested in New York's Ground Zero building project. So now the Camorra is our problem as well as Naples'.
In Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy, would-be comedian Rupert Pupkin explains why he kidnapped a late-night TV talk show host and usurped the show's monologue, knowing for certain he would be caught and sent to prison: "Better to be king for a day than schmuck for a lifetime." Rupert's words came to mind while watching director James Gray's Two Lovers, the oddly old-fashioned story of Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix), a contemporary man-child living under the thumb of his mother and father in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and his romantic dilemma, the sort that only happens in the movies.
As written by Gray and Ric Menello, Leonard is the sort of mid-20th-century urban Jewish male, beloved of Philip Roth, Woody Allen, and a host of other authors, whose life is a struggle between following his own destiny and obeying his smothering parents — played to the hilt by Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov. Thirty-something Leonard, whose room in the family apartment looks as if it were decorated by Beaver Cleaver, works for his father at his dry cleaning shop, a gofer job delivering clothes to customers. Leonard's only personal outlet is photography, and he's good at it. Old man Kraditor is about to sell the business to another dry-cleaning family who just happens to have an unmarried daughter Leonard's age. So lonely, awkward, preoccupied Leonard gets fixed up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), a reasonably attractive but hopelessly dull woman whose favorite movie is The Sound of Music.
Then one day in the building hallway Leonard bumps into Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). She's the kind of trouble any single guy would love to get into — cute, blond, talkative, sexy clothes, footloose, not especially intelligent but who cares. They hit it off immediately, and something strange comes over Leonard. When he's with Michelle he's loquacious, witty, a party animal. She brings out the sexual animal in him, too, and encourages him, in her way, to glimpse his possibilities. The only obstacle is Michelle's sugar daddy — she's maintained in her apartment by a lawyer, her boss at a Manhattan law firm. But she's tired of him, and maybe they can run away together to San Francisco after all. So the horns of Leonard's dilemma are sexy bad girl Michelle, the West Coast, and a career in photography versus haimish Sandra with a life sentence in the Brooklyn dry-cleaning biz attached — in other words, King for a Day or Schmuck for a Lifetime. Oh wait, did we mention that Leonard has a history of emotional problems, and that the movie opens with his latest unsuccessful suicide attempt, a leap off a pier into Sheepshead Bay?
Phoenix, Paltrow, and Shaw work these out-of-date characters overtime, wringing out every ounce of pathos. Phoenix, Walk the Line notwithstanding, is a practiced hand at playing mixed-up guys (Reservation Road, The Village, Gladiator), and makes us care, a little, about a two-dimensional loser. Paltrow's Michelle hits that perfect combination of alley cat and shicksa love goddess — you should never leave your wallet in the room with her. And Shaw, busy building a career in stuff like 3:10 to Yuma, nearly walks away with the movie as wallflower Sandra, who's doing the very best she can. The question is, what made the filmmakers come up with such a 1959 scenario? Better yet, how did they make this hoary plot so damned entertaining? Must be movie magic.