Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Mighty Fine Manic Depressive

Moving to New Orleans? Well, Laissez le bon temps rouler, unless you happen to be an awkward Jewish high school student from Brooklyn.  In that case, it might be somewhat daunting.  The Fine sisters find themselves in such a situation, but they will experience far more angst rooted their father’s erratic anger in Debbie Goodstein-Rosenfeld’s partly biographical Mighty Fine (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Joe Fine was a swaggering young enlisted man in WWII when he met Stella, a beautiful Jewish teenager whom a neighbor literally hid in a hole in his property during the war.  Their attraction was immediate and her devotion would be almost total.  In fact, her reluctance to stand up to Fine’s increasingly frequent explosions of anger causes resentment among her daughters.

Maddie is the older attractive one, who can adapt to any new environment fairly easily through her looks and charm.  Natalie is the younger, bookish one, who narrates the film looking back from an adult vantage point.  The fact that Janeane Garofalo supplies these voiceovers does not exactly do the character or actor Jodelle Ferland any favors, subconsciously making most of the audience less inclined to be sympathetic.

At first, the move south appears to be a good thing, but Fine’s textile business (the Mighty Fine label) is on life support.  When the federal tax credit he was banking on is tabled, the writing is on the wall.  Not surprisingly, this pushes Fine to his breaking point.  Though not yet physically abusive outright, the sisters begin to worry Fine might finally hurt one of them, or himself.

Written and produced in the spirit of forgiveness, the film never condemns Fine for his weaknesses, nor does it ever shy away from the uncomfortable reality of his tempestuous behavior.  It is an honest and sensitive film, which is commendable, but not necessarily sufficient.

While viewers feel for the Fines, all of them, their story falls into a rather predictable pattern—their father loses his cool, tries to make it up to the family with some form of extravagance, only to get worked up again.  Maybe it is rather true to life, but as cinema it gets laborious.  A fair number of motley subplots are also left dangling, such as the underworld figures Fine approaches to set an insurance fire at his factory.  Evidently, should you ever get mixed up with gangsters, if you just ignore them they will go away.  For some this will be a minor quibble, but it seems utterly bizarre Goodstein-Rosenfeld would set Mighty in New Orleans, but not employ any of the local music.  That is a real shame, because the sounds are so great and the local musicians could definitely use a gig.

Regardless of Mighty’s faults, it boasts some of executive producer Palminteri’s best work.  Completely eschewing shtick and sentimentally, it is a gutty yet uncommonly human performance.  In contrast, co-executive producer Andie MacDowell is more than a bit mannered as the ever loyal Stella.  Still, her real life daughter Rainey Qualley is a forceful, dynamic presence as Maddie.  Though somewhat mousy by design, Ferland’s Natalie is quite engaging, as well.

Mighty Fine could not possibly be more earnest.  Its design team also has a good eye for period details and overall ambiance.  Still, a bit of tension breaking levity and some funky NOLA tunes would not have undermined the central drama.  Respectable but wearying, Mighty Fine opens this Friday (5/25) in New York at the AMC Empire and AMC Village.