A thousand or so years ago, there was a late night infomercial pitchman some of you may remember. On late-night television, he’d demonstrate the Ginsu miracle blade, a knife that could cut through a block of frozen peas like a hot knife through butter, hack a pop can in half, make razor sharp cuts through a ripe tomato, saw through a 2 X 4, and still “slice meat so thin your inlaws will never come back!” Only $9.99 and that includes a fork, a radish slicer, paring knife….
“The Florentine” is a slice of life drama that could display the Ginsu’s close carving ability. These slices of life are thin indeed, but still pretty tasty. It’s constructed of little slivers of dialog between blue collar types and neighborhood bar denizens. Small vignettes are followed by blackouts, jumping to another moment and another set of characters, and then another. Each little slice is related to the others in ways that only slowly become apparent to the viewer. It’s really quite a pretty conceit, and the subtlety is nicely brought out. It’s better than I’d expected.
Casting-wise, let’s see. We’ve got both Madsens, Michael and Virginia, playing brother and sister, appropriately enough. There’s the lesser Penn, who’s not bad as a petty criminal who's in over his head with both counterfeiting and marriage. And the surviving Belushi, who’s probably the most fun because he’s so obviously sleazy. Obvious to everyone except Luke Perry, another familiar face playing a guy who’s well-meaning but credulous to the point of stupefaction.
Jeremy Davies’ character, a man-child hilariously obtuse, is fun and a little sad. He’s a face you’ll remember from a surprisingly big filmography, everything from “Private Ryan” to “Twister”. I remember him as one of the Bennet brothers from “Justified”, where his hair-brained schemes never came to more than his hare-brained romance in “The Florentine”.
The cast is rounded out with Mary Stuart Masterson and old pro Hal Holbrook as the philosopher/barfly, a character his craggy feature work well for. A lot of talent in service of a small script, but there aren’t any bad performances. And isn’t that Tom Sizemore? Yes it is! Always good to see him. Hard to think of a movie he hasn’t been in; I remember him best for “Private Ryan” and “Blackhawk Down”. Here, he's rough but has a heart of gold, the only character who moves things along after we learn his Dark Secret.
This looks like a film of a play, and the barroom setting is indeed a little stagey. But the director did open it up with some exteriors and a nice church interior. I admit to being put off initially by the Working Class Hero opening narration, about how a dive bar is almost a holy space. I darn near bailed when the picture opened with Holbrook’s sententious maunderings about taverns and community and a place for lonely souls to….you get the idea. Sometimes a dive bar is just a dive bar, OK? No monolog required.
But the promise of all that talent kept me watching, and once I got into it, I came to appreciate the amount of craft involved. The plot is really thin; not much happens and what does happen is as much off-stage as on. But, it’s sweet and well-meaning, and even con-man Belushi is a small-time hustler who’s easily defeated. A wedding is planned, a wedding happens, money worries come and go, and at the end, things are pretty much the same as before. There’s a closing benediction from Holbrook I would as soon do without. If you haven’t got the point about the importance of the bar by now, you’re probably an unfeeling old cynic like me.
There’s almost no action, surprisingly little drinking, and characters don’t grow once defined. But, it’s a small, sweet movie with plenty of heart. If that sort of thing appeals, give “The Florentine” a try. It even warmed my crusty old heart a little. Four stars, just because I get mushy thinking about nights spent drinking at Polly's Lounge back in my home town.