Buffalo '66

on June 26, 1998 by Ray Greene
John Cassevetes is one of those filmmakers who looks a lot easier to imitate than he actually is. Take, for example, his son Nick's romantic comedy "She's So Lovely" from just last year. Working from a screenplay authored by his father, utilizing a stellar cast of name actors clearly dedicated to the cause of resurrecting the hardcore, semi-improvised, fascinatingly raw style of prime Cassavetes' dramedies like "Husbands," "Faces" and "Shadows," Cassavetes the Younger came up with... bupkus. Zilch. Nada. A talented cast, stammering their lines in a lame attempt to make it sound like they'd just thought up the words themselves. As if that was all there was to it.
It isn't, of course. The bane of "She's So Lovely" was that you could almost hear the offscreen ringing of cell phones and the distant roar of private jets calling its slumming superstar ensemble away to the more lucrative paydays awaiting them as soon as they'd gotten their little act of homage out of the way. What the best of John Cassavetes' films demanded of their casts was something that's all too exceptional in the current high stakes production environment: absolute and uncompromised commitment, which translated onscreen into a world that felt uncommonly real.
Thankfully, it's a concept actor Vincent Gallo utterly understands. While his writing/directing debut "Buffalo '66" isn't necessarily at the level of the very best of the filmmaker whose movies so clearly inspired it, Gallo does a handsome job of creating a world and a set of characters that feel wholly authentic, and that in itself is a rare enough treat.
Billy Brown (Gallo), a newly released ex-con, has pulled off the loopy if impressive stunt of convincing his family he's been out of town with his beloved wife Wendy for the last five years. Not that the eyes of Mom (Anjelica Huston) and Dad (Cassavetes stalwart Ben Gazzara) are that hard to pull the wool over; it's clear from the moment we meet them that Billy is barely an accessory to their noisy, TV-saturated working class lives.
Still, Billy has appearances to keep up, which is why he kidnaps Layla (Christina Ricci) to play-act the role of his non-existent wife. Unfortunately for him, some undisclosed wound in Layla's psyche causes her to fall for Billy almost immediately, and once the charade is over, she's a lot harder to get rid of than he anticipated. It's an important complication, because Billy has big plans: He's out to assassinate the former Buffalo Bills football player whose end-zone fumble caused him to lose ten grand to a mob loanshark-the event which put him behind bars.
It's almost amazing how many of the same strengths and weaknesses of a mid-range Cassavetes movie are on display in "Buffalo '66." As Billy, Gallo is fascinatingly motor-mouthed, though a bit hectoring at times-like many of Cassavetes' protagonists. Ricci's Layla, while beautifully depicted by this increasingly assured young actress, remains a bit cryptic in her motivations-just as many of the women in Cassavetes' films did. There's even a sudden swivel into unrepentant sentimentalism at the end of the film, which was a side of Cassavetes' creative process that loomed large, though it often went unremarked.
Gallo's film is no mere act of channeling the departed spirit of an indie film giant, however. Visually and editorially deft and sometimes more than that, acute in its use of real locations and dialogue that matches the rhythms of common speech, and attuned to the strange dynamics at work in the lives of a whole class of people who are usually banished from American movie screens in favor of a fetishized version of the upper middle class, "Buffalo '66" offers a radical departure from much of what's currently being made both in and out of the indie scene. If Gallo's handiwork occasionally seems overly reminiscent of one of improvisational cinema's grand masters, that alone is a major achievement. As the long string of failures mounted in Casssavetes' name has demonstrated, to walk in the footsteps of a giant takes a director with a pretty expansive stride. Starring Vincent Gallo, Christina Ricci and Ben Gazzara. Directed by Vincent Gallo. Written by Vincent Gallo and Alison Bagnall. Produced by Chris Hanley. A Lion's Gate release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 110 min. Opens 6/26. Screened at Sundance.
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