In Tony Bill's new movie, "Five Corners," a high school math teacher in the Bronx is struck down on his way to class by a red arrow smack in the middle of his back. That arrow comes straight from the pen of screen writer John Patrick Shanley, and the question it answers, once and for all, is, "Has anyone ever died of a bad literary device?"
"Five Corners" was the first screenplay written by Shanley, the playwright-turned-screen writer who's recently captured much acclaim (and an Oscar nomination) for his script for "Moonstruck," and it's so emphatically, doggedly literary that you almost expect it to be projected on onionskin rather than a screen.
The film is set in 1964 in a Bronx neighborhood called Five Corners, where the times they are a-changin' and a group of lower-middle-class young people are a-tryin' to deal with them. The incident that catalyzes the film's action is the return of a hulking bruiser named Heinz (John Turturro), who's been doing time in the state pen for his attempt to rape Linda (Jodie Foster), who works in the local pet shop. Heinz is bad, and we can tell because he has a very prominent scar running right along the part line in his hair, where Harry (Tim Robbins) smashed him over the head with a beer mug during the aforementioned rape attempt. That scar is a literary device, too.
This is a movie lousy with literary devices -- such as the penguins Heinz steals from the zoo and later beats to a pulp -- all of them achingly bad. Shanley's script makes much of the social climate of the times, in particular of the influence of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., who were rallying white as well as black supporters to their causes. Harry, for example, who used to be an unthinking ruffian prone to smashing things over people's heads, has now renounced violence and taken up King's peaceful example. Which means we have to sit there and wait for him to find himself in a morally compromising situation where he absolutely has to punch somebody's lights out so that he can stare at his fist in disgust. And, sure enough, that's just what he does. This is followed shortly by another red arrow.
The insights are no deeper here than those you might find in one of John Hughes' teen dramas, and at least there you wouldn't have to tough out the tortured conceits and the I'm-a-real-writer posturings. And for a movie that banks so much on getting the feel of its period, don't you think the filmmakers would attempt to get the cultural details right? (For example, the film is set in '64, but its opening song, the Beatles' "In My Life," didn't come out until December of '65.)
The performances are as egregiously labored as the writing. The only member of the cast who doesn't flex her knees before spitting out her lines is Jodie Foster, but this isn't really the kind of role she can do much with.
By the way, about those penguins. There's a note at the end of the film that states the following: "Many thanks to the penguins in this film. They were treated most respectfully and no harm ever came to them in their work." Fine. Fine. I'm glad somebody was thinking about the penguins. But what about us? What about our feelings?
Five Corners, at the Dupont Circle Theater, is rated R and contains violence, profanity and adult situations.