There's a scene right in the middle of "Dead Broke" where the detective gathers all the suspects around the room in one big circle, and that's right when one of the characters asks if this is going to be just like the scene in all those mysteries where the detective gathers all the suspects around the room in one big circle.
This should clue you in on what's going on in this deliciously goofy indie noir-lite from writer/director Edward Vilga. This is a sharp little film, smart and funny and bitter and yes, even genuinely engaging as a mystery. The premise is familiar, but Vilga's handling of it is decidedly fresh.
Right outside the service entrance of a Brooklyn collections agency, someone's been shot. The body falls into the river. The cops, then, have a curious case on their hands: witnesses but no corpse, and all the employees of the agency curiously unaware that a crime has even occurred. Surely somebody inside is the killer. But who?
Cracking the case won't be easy, because in order to figure out whodunit, our intrepid detective (John Glover) first must sift through a series of stories involving the strange doings of the agency's employees. There's Frankie (Patricia Scanlon), whose foul mouth and hot temper earns her trouble; Kate (Jill Hennessy), who's starting over after leaving her husband; Walter (Tony Roberts), whose fastidious mannerisms may be hiding something sinister; Sherry (Nela Wagman), the mousy bookkeeper who knows everyone's secrets; Luanne (Cheryl Rogers), who's been around since the beginning of the agency; and Harvey (Paul Sorvino), a heck of a nice guy who's definitely connected in certain circles, if you follow my meaning. They all have plenty to hide, even if what they have to hide has nothing to with murder.
What we get, then, is a cracking character piece, with Vilga's theater background helping the filmmaker get the most out of limited space - this is pretty much a single-location story, but Vilga and his cast put so much into building endlessly fascinating characters that we don't mind watching what could translate very well to the stage. His ear for dialogue doesn't hurt either, with snappy lines mixing the crisp language of film noir with a biting comic wit. This is, quite simply, a brilliant movie for the ears.
(Vilga also shows some chops as a director, helping opening up the tight setting with some impressively flowing camera work that makes the set look bigger than it is; the various flashbacks of the script also open up the constrained story and provide some breathing room.)
The web of character relations is delightfully complex, and it's plenty fun to watch the bigger picture slowly unfold - this is a marvelous puzzle of a film. But it's just as fun to simply sit back and watch these characters do anything at all. This is an exceptional cast, every single performer deserving praise; the way these actors balance the frantic comedy and the peculiar mystery without resorting to cheap, flat characterizations is wonderful. These are people so gloriously flawed yet so endlessly endearing that when the movie ended, the first thing I wanted to do was start it all over again, just so I could spend more time with them.
All of this activity then comes to us filtered through Vilga's impressive knowledge of the collections business (from which end the knowledge comes, I do not know). After all, who'd have ever thought to have set a murder mystery within a collections agency? Sure, the same story could have worked in a hundred different settings, but here, at the snarkily named Polite Persistence Agency, everything gets that extra oomph. Nice touch.
But let me change courses now and offer you the complex history of "Dead Broke," a story which proves that Hollywood is often unfair to the films that deserve it most: To coincide with the film's premiere at the 1999 Tribeca Film Festival, Vilga and his cohorts arranged for it to also become the first feature length motion picture to be given a simultaneous release on the internet. Vilga hoped the extra attention would help his movie get picked up by a distributor, while financers and big names like iFilm hailed it as the next big step into the future of movies. Several news stories can be found online that quote Big Men of Vision as stating that within a few years, internet distribution of movies will undoubtedly be the way of the future.
Jump ahead seven years. Sure, you can find your movies online, but rarely are they anything but pirated torrents. Many theaters employ digital projection, but celluloid remains the dominant species. DVD, not online viewing, officially became the Next Big Thing. The predictions turned out to be all too optimistic.
And Vilga's film? Alas, it remained in limbo, despite the brief attention. It would reappear for brief runs in a few more film festivals over the years, only to sink back into limbo again and again. It wouldn't be until now that a major studio - Warner Brothers - would pick it up; they would then dump it as a direct-to-video release with minimal fanfare.
This is, undeniably, a shame, for "Dead Broke" is a quiet little movie that's just begging to be discovered. There's just so much here that gets it so right that it deserves to be rescued from the pile of the overlooked and the underappreciated.
The movie's low budget is definitely on display here, with the grain of cheap film stock on display in every shot. But in its own way, it works, giving the story an extra sense of grit. The transfer also manages to salvage things, revealing some nice use of light and shadows in this film that takes place almost entirely at night. The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 full frame format.
The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track is nothing fancy, but it works. No subtitles are available.
A commentary from Vilga, cinematographer Joaquín Baca-Asay, and assistant director Jeremy Slutskin isn't quite as involving as one would hope, containing too many loooooooong pauses. When they finally do get to talking, it's only to mention how they filmed this shot or how they found that actor.
A trailer, which looks to have been created for shopping around to distributors and festivals, is also included. It's presented in a letterbox format; the widescreen effect seems to be artificially added in editing.
Finally, we get trailers for three other indie projects: "On the Outs," "Love, Ludlow," and "A Perfect Fit." These are accessible from the bonus features menu, which makes it all the more annoying that they also play as soon as you put the DVD into your player - and they're coded so you can't skip past them. (Yes, you can scan forward to help push them along, but it's still ridiculously obnoxious.)
I first watched "Dead Broke" very late at night, and I actually fought off much-needed sleep so I could immediately watch it again with the commentary. It's that kind of movie, the kind that surprises you and grabs you and makes you smile the whole way through because it's just so freaking cool. Highly Recommended all the way - this movie deserves to find an audience, fast.