Film Review: The Dukes

Retro comedy about doo-wop singers hoping for one last score has great harmony, but lacks a catchy beat.

Written, produced and directed by veteran film and television actor Robert Davi, The Dukes is one of those proverbial labors of love, a project 30 years in gestation, springing from Davi’s brief encounter with Jay Black, former leader of the pop-music group Jay and the Americans, in the late ’70s. Davi was working on his first film, the made-for-TV movie Contract on Cherry Street with Frank Sinatra, while Black, who recorded “Come a Little Bit Closer” and other hits in the early ’60s, had abandoned his singing career. “Meeting Jay brought home that it wasn’t just steelworkers…who were being affected by a society changing,” recalls Davi of those stagflation years. “The country was going through real metamorphosis…and it came to me that doo-wop was a way to write about that with a light comic touch.” Davi and co-screenwriter James Andronica knocked out a script, but it languished in a drawer for decades before he could finance it.

The Dukes presents, to borrow a phrase, the rest of the story, a leisurely yarn that riffs on the classic heist caper, the ever-popular buddy movie and, according to Davi, neorealist Italian comedies. It’s probably simpler to describe The Dukes as a feel-good movie for folks over 50, well-intentioned and well-acted if somewhat predictable and occasionally contrived, a date movie for baby-boomers willing to climb off the couch for dinner and a show. There are more chuckles than guffaws in this film, shot on location at Venice and Redondo beaches to a retro soundtrack, despite that the narrative turns on that tried-and-true comic set-up, the improbable robbery by bungling amateurs. But the characters are recognizable and likeable…we keep watching even though we know what’s coming.

In brief, Danny DePasquale (Davi) and his cousin, George (Chazz Palminteri), are struggling to make ends meet, working for their Aunt Vee (Miriam Margolyes) in a checkerboard-cloth trattoria in Los Angeles. Their glory days with the singing group The Dukes are long gone, but they hope for one last score, a reissue of their hits as part of a golden oldie collection, perhaps, or a reunion tour. The best gig their agent, Lou Fiola (Peter Bogdanovich), can arrange, however, is a condescending commercial featuring singing tomatoes, for money that doesn’t cover Danny’s 10-year-old’s dental bills, or George’s own incisor implant. In fact, Danny and George are so obsessed with teeth, and so desperate for cash, that they dream up a scheme to swipe gold from a local dental lab.

Like last year’s King of California, another indie film about an aging eccentric who resorts to crime to achieve his dream, The Dukes doesn’t take its gold-platter gang seriously: The robbery is an excuse to allow the characters to rediscover themselves. The excellent cast, more menagerie than ensemble, includes Elya Baskin as Murph, an unemployed pot-smoking electrician; the late Frank D’Amico as the over-the-hill and overweight comedian who once opened for The Dukes, and Bruce Weitz as a washed-up safecracker. Davi provides them with enough quirks to qualify them as officially offbeat; George, for example, has an inexplicable lust for fat women (talk about Italian neorealism!) that prevents him from enjoying the ardent affections of the sweet, but svelte, Katherine (Eloise DeJoria), a waitress at the restaurant.

As all this must imply, The Dukes has an atemporal aspect about it, as did Dick Clark for so many years. The film time is now, but the actors dress like it’s 1958. For that matter, since the movie purports to depict entertainers who peaked in the early ’60s, they should be nearing retirement age, but in fact we are asked to think of them as 10 or 15 years younger. No matter…or maybe The Dukes should have been called The Dorian Grays.