WELCOME TO COLINWOOD

R

-By Harry Haun


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Bungling burglars don't come any better than the ones who tumbled out of the Italian clown-car called Big Deal on Madonna Street. It was a very big deal indeed, representing Italy (unsuccessfully) for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1958 and scoring a big financial hit when released in this country three years later with luckless luminaries like Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni, Toto, Renato Salvatori and Claudia Cardinale. They and their writer-director, Mario Monicelli, set the bar, and nobody has budged it since--although plenty have tried. Bob Fosse remade it for Broadway (1986's Big Deal) and Louis Malle for stateside cinema (1984's Frisco-based Crackers)--to notably small effect--and other fumbling facsimiles over the last 44 years added up to only Little Deals.

All of which is by way of saying welcome to Welcome to Collinwood, a surprisingly zesty and zany take on this much-told tale. Fearless first-time writers-directors Anthony and Joe Russo charge forth like rhinos in heat--plainly a pair of Coen Brothers wannabes who don't actually fall too far from that mark--and mine some authentic belly laughs.

Aiding and abetting them every stumble of the way is a crackerjack cast, eccentric by design, elastic in the playing. They don't come any more idiosyncratic. Individually, they could just stand there and get laughs; in tandem, they're like a well-oiled machine.

Collinwood is a seedy suburb of the Russo Brothers' hometown, Cleveland. A festering cluster of its low-life has united in the quest of a "Bellini," street parlance for a heist that'll put them on Dream Street in another burg. One of their number (the ubiquitous Luis Guzman) learned the gig--a pawnshop pushover--from a cellmate and is forced to farm the work out to the screw-ups in the neighborhood. His ever-loving girlfriend (Patricia Clarkson) lines up a cracked team of robbers that includes a glass-jawed boxer (Sam Rockwell), an out-of-luck gigolo (Andrew Davoli), an out-of-money artist (William H. Macy), a slickly dressed dandy (Isaiah Washington) and an old-codger crook (Michael Jeter). Whipping them into a lean, mean fighting machine is a wheelchair-bound safecracker (George Clooney, who produced the picture with Steven Soderbergh).

Faithful to the Italian original, the Russos give this eclectic crew individual shadings. Macy, tightly wound as ever, does the single dad Butch-minds-the-baby routine while his spouse is momentarily up the river. Rockwell is allowed a little dalliance with Jennifer Esposito, a maid who could provide easy access to the apartment next to the pawnshop.

The off-center humor is a constant, and the ensemble gives it a buoyant delivery Seconding the Coen Brothers' motion is a funky fun score by Mark Mothersbaugh, one of several unexpected delights to be found within the unique precincts of Collinwood. Despite the plot familiarity of the territory, it's worth a visit--and sometimes it even seems new.

-Harry Haun


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