Keva Rosenfeld's Twenty Bucks is an odd little forgotten gem. Ostensibly following the fate of a $20 bill from the moment it enters circulation, out of an ATM machine and through the hands of a number of interesting people who are interconnected in subtle and unsubtle ways. Although the film has the outward feel of an anthology, offering a series of sometimes-touching and sometimes-humorous vignettes about the various people who get their hands on the bill, Twenty Bucks offers a nice, if broadly drawn, sense of community, of commonality, and of quirky fate. Despite it's sometimes awkward maneuverings, this comedy/drama has a certain charm.
The film starts with the introduction into the world of a fresh $20 bill, which gets swept into the air from the ATM and into the middle of a busy street. Street bum Angeline (Linda Hunt) is the first to find the treasure, but her luck is short-lived, as it passes through the hands of a boy to a local baker to a wealthy businessman, who bestows the gift as a symbol to his brand-new son-in-law, Sam Mastrewski (Brendan Fraser), on his wedding day. Sam feels insulted by the "gift" and ends up slipping it under the G-string of an enterprising private-show stripper (played by personal-fave Melora Walters). At this point, you can understand the film's structural intentions. The bill moves on through further characters—including a couple of criminals played by Steve Buscemi and Christopher Lloyd), as well as a struggling writer (Elisabeth Shue) and her guy (David Schwimmer, doing Ross)—occasionally cycling back across the palms of certain characters, so that we have a cohesive narrative. And all this accumulation of fated encounters has a fairly nice little sense of destiny and coincidence, but in the end, the gimmick can seem stretched thin.
These are mostly effective but sometimes overwrought short stories. Just as you grow tired of one, the next one takes over, piquing your interest anew. Just as I was convinced that the Elisabeth Shue story was descending into cheap pap, it flung a not-too-shabby and kinda-touching ending at me, and it surprised me. The story about the two criminals, who rant and rage through a single-night crime spree that will come to a disastrous end, has a pleasantly contained feel to it, despite an unwelcome intrusion from a couple of characters from one of the other stories. The stripper played by Walters is an interesting enigma, fascinated by alternative healing and sidelining as a funeral-home attendant. There's a nice, open-ended quality to that story, making me want to learn more about her. (Or maybe it's just that I love Walters in just about everything she does.)
The history of the film is intriguing. Endre Boehm wrote the essentials of this screenplay in 1935, and handed it down to his son, Leslie, who revised it for our time and finally brought it to the screen in 1993. Leslie has done a pretty good job for his old man. The resulting film has a modest kick of eccentricity, and the film ends on a fine note, as the bill ends up back in Linda Hunt's hands, quite the worse for wear—but at that point the bill doesn't matter as much as the characters who have touched it along the way. Alfred Hitchcock would have called the bill the "MacGuffin," the thing that starts the plot humming but doesn't matter much by the end. In the last five minutes, we care more about the peculiarities of chance and the spectrum of human personalities than about cold, hard cash.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Sony presents Twenty Bucks in a good, impressively detailed anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. That being said, I noticed a preponderance of orange in the transfer. Some of this might have to do with the director's intention to bleach the film of the color green, except where the titular bill is concerned. Detail isn't bad at all, but wide shots suffer from softness.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The DVD provides a Dolby Digital 2.0 audio presentation that's merely serviceable. This certainly won't be the most dynamic soundtrack to grace your library, but the sound presentation of Twenty Bucks nevertheless provides a decent experience. Sound is predominantly anchored in the center, with mild directional effects to the left and right. Surrounds are mostly inactive.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The Director and Cast Commentary features recollections from director Keva Rosenfeld and actors Elisabeth Shue, Steve Buscemi, and Melora Walters. Rosenfeld acts as moderator throughout, coaxing out of his actors not only reminiscences about the making of the film but also thoughts about acting in general and past roles. It's a real pleasure to hear all three of these interesting actors talk freely about themselves. This interview approach makes the bulk of the commentary non-screen-specific, but at times, the participants acknowledge onscreen action. But these are more like audio interviews than commentaries. Still, definitely worth a listen, and easily the more fascinating of the two commentaries.
The Filmmakers Commentary is a group effort narrated by Keva Rosenfeld and joined by writer Les Bohem and producer Karen Murphy. This track feels more screen-specific and focuses more on details of the production, from the ideas behind the story to the actual shooting. This is a genial track, but that's about it—some nice anecdotes about lighting and casting.
The 15-minute Writing, Casting and Preparations Featurette is a mostly talking-head interview piece involving the same participants as the Filmmakers Commentary above, and it contains a very interesting backstory to the production, involving the historical origins of the story. Casting is covered in detail, but we get no input from actual cast members.
The 18-minute Filming and Editing Featurette contains far more behind-the-scenes footage, concentrating on actual shooting, as well as the challenges of serial numbers on prop $20 bills. The piece ends with some nice nostalgia from the crew.
You also get Previews for 80's Hits, D.E.B.S., 50 First Dates, America's Sweethearts, and St. Elmo's Fire.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Twenty Bucks is worth your time. It won't knock your socks off, and parts of it already feel dated, as if the film were of the 1980s rather than the 90s. The structure of the film recalls Linklater's Slacker, doused with more traditionally Hollywood comedy writing. Worth at least a rental.