In his arch, furiously clever "In the Soup," Alexandre Rockwell tackles the subject most readily available to any up-and-coming film maker: the difficulty of getting a film made. Beyond this, there is nothing pat or ordinary about "In the Soup," which won the prize for best dramatic feature at the Sundance Film Festival this year and a well-deserved best-actor award for Seymour Cassel. Mr. Cassel, in a hilarious turn as a mischievous, big-hearted gangster and potential movie producer, is less an actor here than a one-man show.
Mr. Rockwell has transformed his potentially myopic subject into a wild grab bag of offbeat characters and deadpan comic effects, and in the process made a dryly funny film of exceptional visual beauty. The crystal-clear black-and-white look of Phil Parmet's cinematography gives a helpfully austere look to scenes that otherwise might go over the top.
Take, for instance, the film's opening glimpse of its hero, Adolpho Rollo (played by Steve Buscemi, whose perpetually horror-stricken expression is perfectly in tune with the film's brand of humor). Adolpho introduces himself by telling the audience: "My father died the day I was born. I was raised by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche." At this, Mr. Rockwell offers a glimpse of the threesome at a kitchen table, an image greatly helped by the film's spare, velvety look and its studied nonchalance.
According to his own account, Adolpho is anything but casual about wanting to make his film. Trapped in a Manhattan tenement where the rent is overdue and the landlord's hoodlum friends bring a doo-wop sound to their demands for money, Adolpho dreams of becoming successful -- so successful that this building will be a stop for tour buses some day. As a first step, he takes a newspaper ad offering to sell "one epic 500-page film script."
And he finds a taker: a lovable gangster named Joe (Mr. Cassel), who declares, "I've decided I want art to be an important part of my life." Regardless of whether that is true, Joe wants to take Adolpho under his wing. Their scenes together have an irresistibly funny tenderness, since Joe has other conspicuous love interests and, when with Adolpho, is such an unlikely romantic. The little things -- like waking up Adolpho by nibbling his ear, or coyly saying things like, "Don't say you don't remember" -- wind up meaning a lot.
Still smart enough to remain suspicious of Joe's sweet talk, Adolpho is hopelessly in love with Angelica (Jennifer Beals), the Hispanic waitress who lives next door. Angelica is unfriendly and also unfortunate, since she managed to marry a Frenchman for his green card. ("I'm stupid. Is that a crime?") Also figuring in the film's large, eccentric cast are Pat Moya as Joe's hyperactive girlfriend, named Dang, and Will Patton as Skippy, Joe's hemophiliac brother. Always seen bleeding slightly from one scratch or another, occasionally bursting into inappropriate song ("The Little Drummer Boy" during a non-Christmas drive to New Jersey), Skippy brings an undeniable air of menace to the proceedings.
Jim Jarmusch, whose dry wit is one of many obvious influences on Mr. Rockwell (John Cassavetes is another, making Mr. Cassel's appearance a kind of homage), turns up as a seedy television producer. He sees Adolpho as "a young Don Knotts" and somehow persuades him to appear on "The Naked Truth," an interview show conducted au naturel. (Carol Kane, as the co-producer, claims to see Adolpho more as the Gary Cooper type.) Sully Boyer has a memorably poignant scene as an old man who, once Joe and Adolpho have begun experimenting with criminal forms of fund-raising, finds the two of them in his house in the middle of the night and treats them like old friends.
Although "In the Soup" has a deliberate story line, it plays more as a series of anecdotes, in part because the story is so diffidently told. The film's energy and humor are most sharply focused around Mr. Cassel's scene-stealing antics and around the young would-be film maker's artistic aspirations. Another fine moment has Adolpho proudly unveiling a black-and-white home movie starring his mother as an angel. ("Here she goes into the doorway where the guy sees his past and future all at the same moment.") Adolpho, who keeps a poster from a film by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky prominently displayed in his apartment, sees the influence of Renoir and Godard on this material. Joe sees "The Honeymooners."
"In the Soup," a droll, self-conscious fable with an unexpected heart of gold, can be seen tonight at midnight and tomorrow at 7 P.M. as part of the New York Film Festival. Its commercial run begins Oct. 23 at the Angelica Film Center, Mercer and Houston Streets, and at Cinema 2, Broadway at 66th Street.
IN THE SOUP
Directed by Alexandre Rockwell; screenplay by Mr. Rockwell and Tim Kissell; director of photography, Phil Parmet; edited by Dana Congdon; music by Mader; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Jim Stark and Hank Blumenthal; released by Triton Pictures. At Alice Tully Hall, as part of the 30th New York Film Festival. Running time: 93 minutes. This film has no rating.