Actor Pull

With Friends Like These, who needs sitcom characters?

The comedy With Friends Like These has a setting with possibilities -- the world of second- and third-tier Hollywood character actors, the hustlers who make a decent living in movies and TV but rarely get the sort of roles that are a joy to play, or that bring fame and major fortune. Several members of the cast -- Adam Arkin, David Strathairn, Jon Tenney, Laura San Giacomo and Elle Macpherson -- are a good deal higher on the actor food chain than the characters they're playing. But if the ensemble has a star, it's Robert Costanzo, a guy who really does inhabit that niche of being instantly recognizable but hard to associate with any particular role.

You'd know Costanzo if you saw him -- a balding, heavyset, heavy-featured Italian American, he's played thugs and cabbies and cops and other such unrewarding parts in Honeymoon in Vegas, North, Total Recall, City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold, Die Hard 2, Unlawful Entry, Dick Tracy, Shoot the Moon, The Goodbye Girl and Saturday Night Fever, among many, many other films, as well as much TV. With Friends Like These is a pretty lame movie, but I'm glad it was made, if for no other reason than that it allows Costanzo to shake off, at least this once, the goombah blues.

He plays Johnny DeMartino, an actor with just the same sort of résumé. Johnny's a suburban family man with an adoring wife (Amy Madigan) who frets about his diet, and a pair of loving daughters. They live, along with Johnny's retired father, in a spacious, comfortable house in the L.A. 'burbs. It's clear that Johnny couldn't be less like the brutes he's usually asked to play; he's a warm-hearted, well-loved guy and a fine provider. He's also a bit insecure about not having made it bigger, and he's a little troubled, too, by his participation in the perpetuation of stereotypes.

Details

Rated R.

Costanzo, who can play repellent goons without breaking a sweat -- although the directors would usually prefer him to -- slips easily into the role of a mild-mannered, likable fellow. It's a pity he was forced to create this interesting characterization in the context of such a labored, unnecessarily chaotic movie. The writer-director of With Friends Like These, Philip F. Messina (he wrote the script for Brainstorm, and made several TV movies), attempts to turn what might have been a neat, low-key character study into a screwball farce, and the results, on the whole, are fairly tiresome.

Johnny learns that none other than Martin Scorsese would like to see him for the title role in his upcoming project, Al Capone. He's to keep this audition a secret, but of course he can't. He eventually tells his three best friends: the neurotic, underemployed Steve (Arkin), the philandering Dorian (Tenney) and the intense, mysterious Armand (Strathairn). Once they learn of this audition, his pals start to scheme and pull strings to read for the part themselves.

It's supposed to be an affectionate look into the vain, gossipy, competitive world of acting. But while the insider details feel right enough, the dialogue lacks wit, and the actions of the characters feel less like logical behavior than like obedience to the mechanics of the plot.

Even at their most envious, actors can be professionally pragmatic, and none of Johnny's friends is shown to be so stupid that they can't see that all three of them are clearly wrong for the role of Capone, and that Johnny is clearly right for it. Real actors would most likely keep their fingers crossed for a friend to get a plum role, if for no other reason than the potential trickle-down of good fortune.

If they were all after some fictitious role, the plot might make more sense. Maybe Messina thought the idea of Adam Arkin convincing himself he could play Al Capone was a riot, and in a more broadly played, more satirical farce, it might be. Here the actions just seem imposed upon him, and silly rather than funny.

There's really nothing wrong with the film that a simpler, tighter script wouldn't cure. Messina's direction is entirely competent, and Costanzo and his co-stars are good company. Strathairn has a monologue near the end that shows what a fierce, commanding actor he can be; it would be a truly terrific moment if the speech itself weren't so murkily written.

Messina must have some fine connections -- he was able to get the likes of Beverly D'Angelo, Lauren Tom, Garry Marshall, Jon Polito and Michael McKean to play supporting or small roles, and a hilariously pained-looking Scorsese even turns up, briefly, as himself. The best of these cameos, however, is by Bill Murray, who has a one-scene role as a rat of a producer. With Friends Like These can make few claims to lasting cinematic stature, but Murray's two-word response when he's offered a cup of coffee can be added to the annals of Great Bill Murray Moments.

 
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