Alexandre Rockwell's graceful '92 satire about a wannabe new-wave film-maker
DESPITE ALL THE giddy revisionist hyperbole about midnight screenings, mass faintings and studio bidding wars during the unveiling of Reservoir Dogs at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, the real winner of that year (with a Grand Jury prize to show for it, plus a Special Recognition award, compared to Tarantino’s big fat zilch) was Alexandre Rockwell’s sly, unassuming In The Soup. The movie was the then-35-year-old Rockwell’s third attempt at a breakthrough picture, and though it bravely satirises the lot of the ambitious yet essentially mediocre film-maker, it does so with the effortless grace of a seasoned auteur.
We have new-wave wannabe Aldolpho Rollo (Steve Buscemi), burdened by his own artistic pretensions and an obtuse 500-page screenplay called Unconditional Surrender. Aldolpho is broke, he can’t afford to eat, he does nude cable TV for cash and has fallen behind on his rent. Enter garrulous Mafia hood and sometime aesthete Joe (Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel) with the promise of full $250,000 budget. There’s just one catch…
OK, so the premise isn’t revolutionary (and the likes of Bullets Over Broadway and Get Shorty have since made it feel even less so), but that’s not Rockwell’s priority. Instead he lets the story, told in inky monochrome, roll inexorably towards a bittersweet climax while he concentrates on razor-sharp character work and comic vignettes, like the crooning mobsters who sing Sinatra before extorting rent, or Joe’s psychopathic haemophiliac brother Skippy (Will Patton), or Gregoire (Stanley Tucci), the hysterical French lover of Aldolpho’s neighbour and secret crush Angelica (Rockwell’s then wife Jennifer Beals), or the angry drug-dealing midget from Brooklyn with his ape-man bodyguard. And at the centre of all this there’s Buscemi and Cassel? two stars of American indie credibility, one rising, one waning, both turning in peerless performances. Here Buscemi’s protruding Peter Lorre eyes and overcrowded mouth hint at soulfulness rather than the weaselly mendacity of Reservoir Dogs, while Cassel’s galumphing ebullience is infectious ?his rough’n’tumble relationship with his skeletal co-star is reason enough to see the movie in itself. As is Buscemi’s sardonic voiceover. After Skippy’s murder, he muses, “Something had gone wrong. There must’ve been one pissed-off midget out there.” Brilliant.
Sadly, Rockwell’s career didn’t ignite after Sundance ’92, and was dogged by repetition and stagnation (see his Four Rooms story and his 1998 ‘Soup knock-off Louis & Frank) whereas Tarantino’s was defined, as we know, by blinding dynamism and regeneration. Which somehow makes this tale of cinematic passion and noble failure even more crushingly poignant.