"Unsafe at Any Verbal Speed"
About 50 years ago, English filmmakers crafted a series of delightful comedies that were driven by quaint characters reflecting English archetypes. The best of these movies starred actors such as Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Terry Thomas, and Ian Carmichael, who played aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey on PBS. Some of these comedies revolved around a group of crooks who find out in the end that crime does not pay. Independent filmmaker John Hamburg tries to update that tradition for 1990s’ America in SAFE MEN, a new feature from October Films. He combines that tradition with the kind of bantering dialogue for which PULP FICTION writer and director Quentin Tarantino is famous.
Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn star as Sam and Eddie, two no-talent folk singers who get involved with a couple of Jewish crime families in Providence, Rhode Island. Wrongly pegged as master safe crackers by Big Fat Bernie Gayle’s crazy, incompetent henchman, “Veal Chop,” Sam and Eddie are forced by Bernie to crack three safes to prove they are really the best. The two men fail miserably but are saved when two real safe crackers, Frank and Mitchell, successfully open one of the safes that Bernie sends Sam and Eddie to open.
At one of their botched jobs, Sam meets Hannah, the daughter of another Jewish gangster, Big Fat Bernie’s rival Good Stuff Leo, who sells stolen goods at a hidden warehouse. Sam falls in love with Hannah and finds his loyalties torn when Bernie wants Eddie and him to steal a prized possession out of Leo’s store safe. Meanwhile, Eddie starts liking his “life of crime” and, after making a special effort to learn how to do it well, thinks about making a career out of it. The movie comes to a climax at the much-anticipated Bar-Mitzvah of Bernie’s son, Little Big Fat Bernie Gayle, Jr.
SAFE MEN delivers many amusing moments as it follows these quirky characters. Paul Giamatti shines as the incompetent henchman Veal Chop, whose real name is Sasha. Veal Chop longs to be accepted and loved by his boss, Big Fat Bernie, and even by Sam and Eddie. They deny him that pleasure, however, so Veal Chop establishes a touching, funny rapport with Bernie, Jr., who is studying Hebrew for his Bar Mitzvah. Watching this “gangster with a heart of gold” encourage Bernie, Jr. with his Hebrew lessons and play a video game with him are among the biggest delights in this movie.
Although SAFE MEN is fairly lightweight and does not have the drugs, violence and sexuality of other films about gangsters, it does have a lot of foul language. The repartee between the characters, especially the males, is filled with it and seems greatly out of place in the context of the sweetness in much of the story. Also, although Sam returns Leo’s prized possession at the end and Leo’s daughter calls off the muscleman Leo sent to break Sam and Eddie’s legs, the gangster lifestyle is not rebuked. In fact, Eddie decides to team up with the other two safe crackers, and Sam in effect gives Eddie his blessing. Furthermore, Big Fat Bernie and his son participate in a Bar Mitzvah ceremony at their synagogue, but their participation is just an ethnic tradition holding little real meaning. Finally, the story meanders just a little too much and surprisingly fails to give its audience the kind of comic climax that such a tale deserves.
(Pa, B, LLL, V, M) Pagan worldview with some moral elements, including a recitation of the biblical doctrine that "The Lord is One"; 65 obscenities, 4 profanities & several vulgarities; gangster shouts & threatens people with death & man tells story of woman perishing in fire set by flammable pants; and, stealing, lying & religious hypocrisy.