Just Looking

on October 13, 2000 by Wade Major
   Given the number of major Jewish filmmakers and playwrights who grew up in New York between 1935 and 1955, it's not surprising that coming-of-age stories about Jewish boys growing up in New York during that period have proliferated on stage and movie screens for some three decades now. Unfortunately, that doesn't make them all worth seeing. Jason Alexander's "Just Looking" is a case in point, an assured but ultimately unremarkable directing debut for the veteran stage, television and film actor best known for his role as George Costanza on "Seinfeld."

   While Alexander and screenwriter Marshall Karp try hard to create unique and endearing characters, the ghost of Neil Simon haunts them from the start. The story of 14-year-old Lenny (Ryan Merriman), his dysfunctional nuclear and extended family and a summer vacation spent desperately trying to witness the act of copulation hits few beats that audiences haven't already seen tenfold, mostly in the likes of Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs." Familiar archetypes include the concerned mother (Patti Lupone), the hated stepfather (Richard V. Licata), the outcast Italian in-law (Peter Onorati), the conspiratorial buddy (Joseph Franquinha) and the obligatory "older woman" (Gretchen Mol) from whom all adolescent fantasies flow. A pair of sexually overeducated Catholic girls (the endearing Amy Braverman and Allie Spiro-Winn) round out the colorful cast of characters, all of whom dutifully perform their appointed rounds, doing precisely what they're expected to do, precisely when they're expected to do it.

   Were it not for Alexander's feel for the material and sincere affection for the characters, "Just Looking" would be strenuously tedious. But thanks to a genuinely fine group of actors and Alexander's keen instincts for directing them, what winds up on screen is usually more than enough to sustain interest. Merriman, first seen opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in "The Deep End of the Ocean," is especially good here, exuding the same kind of confident charm that first drew audiences to Leonardo DiCaprio and River Phoenix. It should be stated, too, that some viewers may find the film's derivative nature more endearing than off-putting, the familiar settings and situations less affectation than earnest nostalgia.

   Whether or not the film is accepted by audiences, though, it appears as though Alexander's career as a director is well on its way. For when the film works, the credit lies squarely with Alexander for navigating his cast through dialogue and situations that rightfully should not seem even remotely as fresh and spontaneous as they often do. Just what he might do with better material and a more substantial budget is a tantalizing prospect.    Starring Ryan Merriman, Joseph Franquinha, Peter Onorati, Gretchen Mol, Patti Lupone, Amy Braverman, Ilana Levine, Richard V. Licata and Allie Spiro-Winn. Directed by Jason Alexander. Written by Marshall Karp. Produced by Jean Doumanian. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Period comedy. Not yet rated. Running time: 102 min.

Tags: Ryan Merriman, Joseph Franquinha, Peter Onorati, Gretchen Mol, Patti Lupone, Amy Braverman, Ilana Levine, Richard V. Licata, Allie Spiro-Winn, Jason Alexander, Marshall Karp, Jean Doumanian, Sony Pictures Classics, Period comedy

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