High Fidelity

Outside Providence gets coming of age in the ’70s right.

It has been heartening to see some of my fellow survivors of mid-’70s adolescence (post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, pre-punk, pre-Reagan) finally clear their heads of all the drugs and bad music and put those “lost” years into perspective. But how can any filmmaker nowadays convey the nihilistic embrace of dope and booze and pills and do justice both to the way it felt at the time–blissfully gonzo, liberating–and the way it came to feel after everyone did too much–like quicksand? The comedy Outside Providence treats those dark years after Nixon got flushed away with just the right amount of gleeful nostalgia and horrified incredulity. The film is so free of cant that it’s positively cleansing: It leaves you both cleareyed and high.

The movie is based on a terse, bleakly funny 1988 novel by Peter Farrelly, who, with his brother Bobby, wrote and directed Dumb and Dumber (1994) and There’s Something About Mary (1998). It tells the story of a poor Irish kid named Tim Dunphy who lives in Pawtucket, R.I., “a rotting city bleeding off an anemic river just north of Providence.” That description is more bitter than anything in the film, but it does suggest how Farrelly kept life among the urban unwashed from crushing his soul: He cultivated a caustic sense of humor. The movie, directed by Michael Corrente from a script he wrote with the Farrellys, is not in the whacking, gross-out school of the brothers’ other projects, but it shares with them a tender regard for the scruffy outsider, the yearning misfit. (In the novel, a headmaster actually refers to the hero and his friend as “Dumb and Dumber.”) More important, it has the Farrellys’ characteristic mix of misery and brightness: Whenever the view of the working poor threatens to become oppressively self-pitying, the filmmakers pull something nutty out of their hat–a scam, a bit of stoner dialogue, a jolt of rock ’n’ roll–to prove that this particular end only looks dead. OK, maybe it is dead, but sometimes you can plow through a brick wall and come out the other side.

The other side, in this case, is a fancy Connecticut prep school, where “Dunph” (Shawn Hatosy) gets sent when he rear-ends a police cruiser after an evening with his buddies and their bong. (It’s thanks to the murky intervention of one of his dad’s poker pals, a gangster, that he ends up there and not in juvenile detention.) At Cornwall (a k a “Cornhole”), Dunph’s stoner lifestyle proves more of a challenge to maintain. It’s not that the rich kids don’t party as determinedly as the poor ones, it’s that the dorms are prowled by sadistic faculty watchdogs such as Mr. Funderburk (Tim Crowe), as well as by students happy to rat out their peers if it means getting into an Ivy League school. It’s also that Dunph falls for the blond WASP Jane Weston (Amy Smart), who, if not a goody-two-shoes, is determined not to let drugs overwhelm her course of self-improvement. As his Pawtucket buddies die in car crashes or face the prospect of lives scrambling for a dwindling number of factory jobs, Dunph has a vague inkling that his level of consumption is not a design for living.

OutsideProvidence is hardly an anti-drug picture. That would be hypocritical, since its most meaningful (and hilarious) connections happen over (and with a large assist from) booze and pot. Its impulses are divided–which is just, I think, as they should be. The movie says that getting high all the time can rot your brain and even kill you, but it’s not above going for Cheech & Chong-style laughs or blithely wallowing in the sense of community that drugs can instill. In Pawtucket, the kids get stoned and hang out at the water tower. Over bong hits, they talk of moving to a West Coast utopia where “they got babes, they got weed, they got cars that don’t rust.” When Dunph tells them he likes the girl he’s seeing so much he doesn’t think about banging her, they say she “sounds like a cool mule.” I wish that the Pawtucket scenes hadn’t been shot on a special film stock–they’re bleached a toilet bowl blue–but they still have a powerful comic hum. Even Jackie (Tommy Bone), Dunph’s wheelchair-bound brother (“He had a freak accident at touch football and fell off a roof,” explains Dunph, in a voice-over), gets to be in on the jokes instead of the object of them: In one scene, he feigns extreme cerebral palsy so that he and his brother can have great seats at a football game.

The charm of Corrente’s direction comes as a shock. The Rhode Island native made his debut in 1994 with a mannered, Mean Streets-style, Italian-guys-from-the-neighborhood picture called Federal Hill and followed that with a strenuously boring adaptation of David Mamet’s AmericanBuffalo (1996). In Outside Providence, he stops trying to wow us with indie-auteur smarts. The details are right. Songs that I hoped never to hear again–“Hold Your Head Up,” “Take It Easy,” “Band on the Run,” “Free Bird”–sound, in context, startlingly fresh, and Dunph’s brown corduroy jacket looks like the one I persisted in wearing into the late ‘80s when a girlfriend finally took the initiative to drop it down a garbage chute. Better, Corrente brings out the natural radiance in his young actors. The snaggletoothed Hatosy has a soft, agreeable presence. Early on, he makes Dunph seem a tad stupid, but when he’s picked up hitchhiking by Jane and her rich parents, you glimpse the sneaky undercurrents of his rube act. He passes her a Coke, which turns out to be spiked with rum, and the two have a magical collusion. (Amy Smart must be the nicest, most down-to-earth Southern WASP goddess in history–if F. Scott Fitzgerald had met her, he’d have lived into his 90s.)

Like its title, Outside Providence hints at a godless universe–as well as a motherless one. (Dunph’s mom shot herself when he was much younger.) You learn from your peers–for better or worse–and not your elders. The movie might have been unbearably depressing if Old Man Dunphy had been the thug of Farrelly’s novel. (In one of the book’s first scenes, he kills his sons’ mutt by crushing it in a door after it tears apart a neighbor’s cat.) But Alec Baldwin brings an outsize comic spirit–and outsize vulnerability–to the film. He drops his voice an octave and bellows lines like “Drag your pimply ass in here and say hello to the guys–show some class f’r chrissakes” in a way that transcends caricature. He’s so frightened of communicating with his children that he has to caricature himself. The source of his comedy is also what makes him tragic.

I n The Very Thought of You, three shallow, London-based mates coincidentally meet and fall in love with the same pretty blond American flake (Monica Potter), thus filling the one she likes best (Joseph Fiennes) with guilt and shame. If watching the bug-eyed and irritable Fiennes wrestle with this nonissue for 90 minutes sounds like fun to you, then don’t hold back on my account. The movie isn’t awful. It pulls a couple of amusing tricks with its narrative (the second act doesn’t come until after the fourth, whereupon everything starts to–sort of–make sense), but this kind of flimsy romantic confection is either utterly charming or it collapses into a heavy slab of obviousness. It doesn’t help that Potter looks and sounds as if she has just stepped out of a lab where someone was laboring to clone Julia Roberts. She has the same wide eyes, turned-up nose, and vaguely glassy hysteria, but everything is smaller-scale: Honey, I shrunk Julia Roberts.

TheAstronaut’s Wife is one of the classiest terrible sci-fi movies you’re likely to see. The tale of an astronaut (Johnny Depp with a drawl) who comes back from a space accident somehow different is cut from the same paranoid cloth as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), I Married aMonster From Outer Space (1958) and, midway, Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But someone forgot to tell the writer-director, Rand Ravich, that a genre movie can’t survive on fancy, high-toned portent alone–especially when the audience knows what’s being portended before they even buy their tickets. It’s a testament to the lovely Charlize Theron that she can hold our attention even when we’re 10 steps ahead of her character and only waiting around to see the big slimy outer-space monster–which never comes. Even Samuel Beckett would be yelling, “Get to the damn point!”