Saturday, May 05, 2018

Tribeca ’18: In the Soup

Today, “independent film” is a marketing term that inspires skepticism, but in the early 1990s, it was an institution that enjoyed a high level of public confidence. Since then a lot of mediocre and dreadful indies have disappeared into the obscurity they deserved, but this one was different. In many ways, it is the prototypical 90s indie, but it fell out of circulation due to the bankruptcy of its distributor and serious damage to the only surviving archival copy. The difficult but pristine-looking restoration of Alexandre Rockwell’s In the Soup had its world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival—and repertory engagements are sure to follow.

In 1992, we were willing to believe film about a nebbish filmmaker struggling to finance his pretentious art film could hold intrinsic importance. In 2018, we can nostalgically look back on it for capturing a time when the Lower Eastside was still considered a slightly sketchy neighborhood. It was an era of punk clubs that Rockwell and his cast were comfortable navigating.

Adolpho Rollo has no money and a five-hundred-page screenplay. With rent due to his thuggish landlords, Rollo takes out a classified ad, offering to sell his unfilmmable monster for five hundred bucks (seems like a fair price on a per page basis). However, he immediately receives a call from “Joe,” a grifter-gambler, who offers to finance Rollo’s film—sort of.

Rollo is not as dumb as he looks, so he suspects Joe is looking to scam him somehow. However, until that shoe drops, he reaps the benefit of Joe’s largesse, including rent money and plenty of boozy parties. He even starts to think he might be able to make his film, which would allow him to save Angelica Pena, the neighbor he carries a torch for, by casting her as his lead.

Steve Buscemi plays Rollo, which is a major reason why In the Soup still sounds like an entertaining way to spend ninety-some minutes. In retrospect, it looks like the Expendables of nineties indie movies, because Buscemi is joined by independent stalwarts such as Seymour Cassel, Jennifer Beals, Will Patton, Stanley Tucci, Jim Jarmusch, Carol Kane, Debi Mazur, and Sam Rockwell.

As Rollo, Buscemi is definitely doing his indie shtick, but there is also a poignant naivete to his performance. He is a likable loser, but he has some guts too. Cassel is in his element, hamming it up as hammy “Joe.” The perennially under-appreciated Beals’ sensitive, multi-layered portrayal of Pena might surprise some viewers, but it really shouldn’t. Jarmusch, Kane, and Tucci all play outrageous caricatures, but their obvious enjoyment is contagious.

As a veritable time-capsule from the early 1990s, Soup is a fascinating and nostalgic viewing experience, but it is also fun. Sure, we have a good idea of how the beats will line up, but it is so much more earnest and energetic than the parade of calculatingly eccentric indies that followed it. It is hard to believe a Sundance Jury Grand Prize winner, with such a notable cast, could come so close to being lost. Fortunately, it is back and worth looking for when it comes around again. Affectionately recommended for the New York nostalgia, the freshly restored In the Soup had a special retrospective screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.