Why can't style and substance just get along? They could just naturally complement each other like peaches and cream or Captain and Tennille but one usually ends up clobbering the other, especially in the hands of budding filmmakers. This is definitely the case with The Brooklyn Heist where a bold visual style quickly overwhelms the pedestrian storyline without attempting to cover up any of its deficiencies.
Connie (Phyllis Somerville) is an elderly pawn shop owner with connections to the mob. To say that she has a jaundiced world view would be an understatement. She longs for the olden days, back before her Brooklyn neighborhood was a racial melting pot and she isn't shy about saying so to anyone who crosses her path. This becomes readily apparent when three different groups of bumbling criminals approach her for financial assistance. First up is Fitz (Danny Masterson) who is the brightest of the dim bulbs in his gang of 'Goddamn Amateurs'. He just wants to get enough money to escape the life of crime with his friend Dino (Michael Cecchi). Next we have Ronnie (Leon), Maya (Serena Reeder) and Moose (Craig Grant) who play gangsters as played by gangsta' rappers. Connie calls them the 'Goddamn Moolies' which takes incredible restraint on her part considering some of the other racial slurs that escape her lips over the course of the movie. The final group consists of the brother and sister duo of Lana (Aysan Celik) and Slava (Jonathan Hova) who are Arab Slavs from Chechnya in search of the American Dream. Connie lovingly calls them the 'Goddamn Sputniks'. After Connie turns away each of the three groups in their time of need, they coincidentally decide to rob her store on the same night, setting up a climactic showdown.
Although it may not be obvious from that synopsis, the film is played as a comedy with a number of heist movie conventions being spoofed along the way. At least that is what I believe the intent was. In reality the film turns into an extended visual experiment with a cobbled together set of cultural clichés and racial stereotypes masquerading as a storyline. Since I've mentioned the visual style a few times, let me delve into it a little bit more. Since each of the three groups has a distinct identity, their segments in the film have vastly different stylistic approaches. Fitz and his gang appear to be in a 1970s antihero film so their segments have flat lighting with scratches and print damage repeatedly appearing on screen. By contrast, Ronnie and his folks seem to have stepped right out of a rap video with saturated colors, slow motion and fisheye lens shots intact. Lana and Slava are trapped in a black and white experimental art film from the 1960s with spot lighting, short lens work and a static camera style. As you can imagine the different visual templates really emphasize the differences between the three groups. They also set up some interesting scenarios towards the end of the film when the groups run into each other forcing the drastically different styles to be seen in the same frame. This is a bold move on the part of director/writer Julian Kheel and co-writer Brett Halsey. The approach is so successful in visually demarcating the groups and their motivations that the script never quite manages to make their co-existence in the film entirely meaningful. It amounts to watching three different short films rather than one film with three intertwining plotlines.
If I had to boil down my dissatisfaction with the script, I would say my biggest problem is with the way the three groups are defined. Fitz's group is defined by their skill level which means that they are free to develop personalities and humorous traits that can draw in a viewer. Ronnie and Lana's teams are painted with broad racial and cultural brush strokes which means that they have to carry the extra weight of being walking, talking clichés. Of the two, Lana's team fares a bit better due to sharper writing and funnier setups. Ronnie and his folks get the short end of the stick as they are forced to enact scenes from rap videos ad nauseum. The repetitive nature of the humor shows up in other places as well. Characters repeatedly blame their circumstances on 9/11. The first few times I heard this, I chuckled because I saw shysters using a victim's mindset to their advantage. By the seventh or eighth utterance, I grimaced because it had turned into yet another crutch for the script. To be fair, there were moments of sharp humor sprinkled throughout the story. The perfectly edited scenes introducing Lana and Slava brought a smile to my face and I found myself enjoying the antics of Fitz's gang more often than not. In fact, I think I would have gladly watched an entire movie based on his group rather than periodically cutting away to follow the other two teams.
Given that this was an ensemble comedy, I want to give kudos to the large cast of characters. Even though not all the teams received equally smart material to deliver, all the actors did their best and I appreciated the effort they put into the occasionally one dimensional roles. Standouts for me included Danny Masterson and Michael Cecchi from the amateur group with Serena Reeder and Aysan Celik putting in a good show from the other two groups. Masterson was his usual snide self and brought expert comic timing to all his scenes. Cecchi was very convincing as a simple guy who just loves his dog, boats and girl-on-girl action. Reeder managed to bring a dash of humanity to what could have been an utterly cartoonish character while Celik sold me with her deadpan performance as Lana. What surprised me is how for a smaller film, the few guest comics were utterly wasted in smaller roles. Nick Kroll and Todd Barry featured in a joke-free scene as Jewish arms dealers while Steve Lemme stunk up the joint as an FBI chief. I've usually enjoyed Lemme's work with the Broken Lizard troupe so perhaps this was just an off day for his brand of improv.