12/4/09

‘R X-mas (2001) - Abel Ferrara’s Prescription for Christmas Cheer

In just three weeks, Christmas will be here, and so it’s high time we get some Christmas cheer around the Lair. I’ve got lots of Holiday goodies in store for you this month, but to kick off the festivities, I had to choose a film from a director that just screams Christmas. No, I’m not talking about Frank Capra. I’m talking Abel Ferrara. That’s right no one does Christmas quite like the director of Driller Killer, Bad Lieutenant, and The King of New York. Sure some folks waste time with elves, and Santa, and miracles, but who needs that when you have social commentary, drug dealers, and violence? In Mr. Ferrara’s world, that’s what the Holiday season is all about, and there’s no mistaking it when you take a look at R X-mas.

Drea de Matteo and Lillo Brancato play your average upwardly mobile New York couple. They spend their days going to their kids play and trying to track down the Party Girl doll that she wants for Christmas. By night they go to work. They leave their fancy apartment for a seedy dive in another part of town where they break down and bag up cocaine for distribution. On Christmas Eve, The wife goes out for one last attempt at tracking down the doll his daughter wants, and the husband becomes the target of a kidnapper (Ice-T). The wife is left with little choice but to raise the ransom by any means.

I have to start at the top with this one. ‘R X-mas is just a horrible title (not that Driller Killer was incredibly clever), but I couldn’t come up with any thing really better. Maybe It’s a Horrible, Depressing, Drug Dealing Life? Even though it’s Ferrara, I really expected a terrible piece of junk, but this was one time when I couldn’t judge a book by its cover. What I got instead was a film with some pretty good ideas that just didn’t quite all gel together. Ferrara filtered a Christmas movie through the lens of the seedy underbelly of New York, and what came out the other end wasn’t perfect, but you’d be hard pressed not to call it original.

‘R X-mas keeps from going down the wrong path with a pretty decent cast of characters and actors to fill the roles. Originally, John Leguizamo and Annabella Sciorra were cast as the unnamed husband and wife, and Leguizamo even reportedly did some minor work on the script. While I like John, I sometimes find his performances way too far over the top, and it would have really hurt this film. Lillo Brancato, who I recognized from his short stint on The Sopranos, gave a very reserved performance as the husband, but I did find it a bit hard to accept him as a drug kingpin. There never seemed to be anything under the surface, and for someone who leads a criminal life, it seems like there would be. In the end, Brancato has limited screen time, and his only really impressive scene, where he tries to bribe a toy store clerk into selling him a Party Girl doll, comes very early in the film.

Getting the majority of screen time is Drea de Matto as the wife. De Matto is also best known to most folks for her turn as Adriana in 56 episodes of The Sopranos, but there was little of her conniving mob girlfriend on display here. The wife is a party to her husband's business, but that doesn’t mean she likes to as much as tolerates it. At one point, she’s asked if there’s not anything else that her husband could do other than sell drugs. She says no. Now that’s just cold, but from what we’re shown of the husband, it might well be the truth. De Matto gives the wife a cool determination, and her scenes with the kidnapper are the best in the film. This is partially to do with her, and a bit to do with Ice-T who I always enjoy seeing. Ice-T’s character seems a bit like his Law & Order character, and there’s definitely something about him and his actions that’s off. However when that plot point is revealed, it becomes the main sticking point of the film.

While throughout we’re privy to the intrigues of drug dealing, the ending is a baffling mess that doesn’t bother to explain what happened. ‘R X-mas really fell apart in the last 20 minutes of the film. Once the husband is kidnapped, we get several great scenes of the wife and kidnapper interacting, but then once it's resolved we’re left with too many questions. This is only exacerbated by the fact that we’re then shown flashbacks that only muddy the waters. In the end, I had a real problem discerning what Ferrara was trying to say with this film. As with most of his work, there was clearly a message he wanted to get across, but any way I looked at it, I have no idea what it was.

With a little clarity and perhaps some action beats this could have been an excellent film. (Perhaps now that Herzog has renvisioned Bad Lieutenant he could churn out ‘R X-mas: New Orleans.) Ferrara is a director who’s made some really great films, but at his best, he was able to capture the raw, desperate, gritty side of New York. The city and people I see in ‘R X-mas seem to be the watered down version of Ferrara’s vision. I can’t say that you should run out and track this one down, but if you want a holiday film that thinks way, way outside the box, this is not at all a bad choice.

Bugg Rating

3 comments:

  1. I always forget that Ferrara directed this film and that may be due to the terrible title. It's like Vampiyaz or some shit!

    Sounds better than I would have expected, but IO also expect better from Ferrara. Great review, I may check this one out someday!

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  2. I was really surprised it was any good. I picked it up for a dollar and I expected to get what you get for a dollar. Something from a value menu, or a terrible film.

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  3. I hadnt even heard of it before this, will try to add it to the Xmas viewing this year

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