Among the many endlessly fascinating aspects of the message Alec Baldwin left on his daughter’s cell phone (and that could only have been released to the public by someone monstrous enough to put his or her own interests far ahead of the child’s) is how it sharpens our appreciation of Baldwin’s acting. The man’s self-absorption is titanic, and he loves—like all the great, instinctive demagogues—to generate a colossal wave of anger and then ride it on in to shore. (Had he been cast as Willie Stark in the remake of All the King’s Men, the creaky parable might have taken hold.) Baldwin is so good in the coming-of-age gangster drama Brooklyn Rules that it’s like watching a voodoo priest. He plays Caesar, a higher-up in the Gambino crime family circa 1985—the kind of sadist who doesn’t just use a cold-cut slicer to separate a man’s ear from his head, but who needs to deliver a righteous monologue while doing so. (“You’re a greedy little pig!” Brrrrrrrrrr-zzzzzz-chghkch.) (Just kidding—he doesn’t use those words. Bad joke. Sorry.)
The movie itself is surprisingly well done. I say surprising because scene by scene, beat by beat, it offers absolutely nothing new—even that title is a snooze. But it’s directed by Michael Corrente, who’s steeped in both Eye-talian angst (Federal Hill) and Mamet-y grandstanding (American Buffalo), and written by Terence Winter, who’s both a Brooklyn native and a higher-up in the David Chase–Sopranos crime family. The mix of autobiographical texture and authentic mobster minutiae puts it over and then some. My fingers hesitate at the keyboard as I recount all the clichéd elements, such as the hero (Freddie Prinze Jr.) who gets into Columbia and falls for the Connecticut society blonde (Mena Suvari) who likes a bit of rough trade but is aghast at a world in which no slight goes unavenged; or the trio of bosom buddies—the brain (Prinze), the slickster hood (Scott Caan), the touching pudgy religious romantic simpleton (Jerry Ferrara)—one of whom (guess which?) is destined to take a bullet meant for someone else. Casting Scott Caan is the masterstroke. He doesn’t look exactly like his dad, but the rhythm of talk, gesticulate, turn, gesticulate, talk is so familiar. You think, Why am I dreading the tollbooth scene?
I can think of only two reasons to endure the long-shelved Wilson brothers comedy The Wendell Baker Story, which stars Luke (as the hero, Wendell) and Owen (as the villain) and is directed by Luke and the hitherto-under-wraps Andrew. It’s crammed with clever touches—this is a talented family, no kidding—but the level of self-intoxication is finally toxic: The Wilsons can’t even tell a been-there-done-that story of a con artist who gets his comeuppance without calling it The Wendell Baker Story, as if the character belongs, by virtue of his Wilsonian pedigree, on a pedestal. But the Wilsons do give a juicy part to Seymour Cassel, who deserves a pedestal after all these years. And if you want proof that Will Ferrell is the most riotously funny straight man since Jack Benny, observe the way his utter sincerity (in the Ralph Bellamy role, as Wendell’s rival for Eva Mendes) lifts this two-ton piece of whimsy into the stratosphere.