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A Job Too Illegit to Quit

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2000


    'The Yards' Joaquin Phoenix is a buddy who betrays Mark Wahlberg in "The Yards." (Miramax Films)
I hate to rain on director James Gray's impressive parade, but "The Yards" is a great director's losing battle against a goofy script.

All the atmospheric promise in the world can't stop this city hall saga about back-stabbing (figurative and literal) politics in Queens, from spiraling rapidly downward into silly melodrama.

Perhaps you've seen "Little Odessa," Gray's wonderfully dark film set in the Russian community in Brighton Beach. There's a definite, stylistic continuity to both films: the silences between words, the looks between characters, the behavior of the people involved. Gray's so careful with these moments – the human texture, if you will – there's an enrapt allure about everything.

But the difference is, "Little Odessa" has a good story. "The Yards," starring Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron and James Caan, tries and fails to download the classic likes of "The Godfather" (even the music sounds like Nino Rota) and those tough Warner Bros. movies starring Jimmy Cagney.

Gray and co-writer Matt Reeves have created what feels like an extended TV pilot, rather than a high-class gangster picture. Gray's assured hand and some strong performances are the only reasons we keep watching.

After 16 months of jail time (taking the fall for some friends), Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) is warmly welcomed by his friends and family, including his mother, Val (Ellen Burstyn), his Uncle Frank (Caan), his best pal Willie Gutierrez (Phoenix) and Willie's girlfriend Erica (Theron).

Leo's determined to get back on the straight and narrow. But Willie derails that plan by setting up Leo with a commuter train repair company, run by Frank. Willie promises Leo that the company's legit. But it's clear – although, apparently not to Leo – this enterprise isn't exactly above board.

How clear? When Leo visits Frank for his first interview, for instance, Leo notices the well-tailored borough president, Arthur Mydanick (Steve Lawrence), doing that "Godfather" double-handshake thing with everyone, then disappearing quickly. He also catches Willie surreptitiously handing off a fat wad of bills to a shady customer.

Uh, Leo. Can you spell "trouble"? Not long after signing on, Leo gets into unexpected trouble in the yards. Suddenly he's on the run, deserted by his friends and unable to make contact with his family. He's also drawn to Erica, which portends a conflict with Willie.

But the less said about the story the better. The enjoyable stuff occurs, basically, when the movie gives downtime to its characters.

Caan's awfully enjoyable as Frank, even though he seems to have stepped directly out of "The Godfather." But he's more pleasure around the dinner table than out in the bad, ugly city. And it's more pleasurable to watch Leo bonding with his mother (a Cagney relationship there), than see him on the run, breathing heavily and ducking into dark alleys.

Speaking of downtime, there are some highly watchable scenes between Val and her sister, Kitty (Faye Dunaway), both of them fascinating characters for whom still waters clearly run deep. Burstyn and Dunaway are so bright and interesting as actors, it's disappointing to see them relegated to second-string roles. Really, why follow Phoenix's hyper antics when the good stuff is happening back in the kitchen? Which leads me to this unfortunate conclusion: If only Leo hadn't taken this job, we'd have a much better movie on our hands.

"The Yards" (R, 105 minutes) – Contains violence, obscenity and nudity.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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