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Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2001

Coming to America 10 years too late



Home Sweet Hoboken

Rating: * * 1/2
Director: Yoshifumi Hosoya
Running time: 92 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

America is the foreign country most familiar to Japanese people -- and the hardest one for Japanese filmmakers to get right.

News photo
Jayce Bartok and Lee Holmes in "Home Sweet Hoboken"

Often they want to emulate the styles of their American idols -- be they Hollywood icons like Howard Hawks or contemporary hipsters like Quentin Tarantino -- but end up with creaky cliches and obvious lifts instead. Or they try to be funny, the way their favorite American films are funny, but their jokes come across as generic or stereotypical. Then, when they try to sympathize with their American minority characters, they tend to caricature or patronize them.

Other foreign directors working in America tend to either successfully adapt to the Hollywood system or film their own, entertainingly subjective portraits of the country (Percy Adlon, Aki Kaurismaki). Japanese filmmakers, I think, often want to have it both ways -- to affect the pose of insiders, while keeping their "uniquely" Japanese distance from their American material.

One who has made a more sincere effort than most to bridge the cultural gap is Yoshifumi Hosoya, who has lived and worked in the United States since 1984. In 1995, he made his directorial debut with "Sleepy Heads,"a comedy about down-and-out Japanese expats in New York. The film was too cute by half, but had a scruffy energy and charm, while glowing with a Hollywood technical sheen -- too much of a sheen, in fact, for its lowlife milieu.

Now Hosoya is back with "Home Sweet Hoboken," a film much in the same comic vein, but with little Japanese on-camera presence. Instead, he has taken a plunge that few of his compatriots would have dared to, by making an "all-American" movie from a script he wrote with Nick Feyz and Christ Assefi.

"Hoboken" echoes indie icons in nearly every scene, if not every shot. Like Tarantino, he's cast aging Hollywood stars -- Ben Gazzara and Elizabeth Ashley -- who have faded into undeserved obscurity. Like Kevin Smith, he goes in for slacker humor: Two of his principals are doofus brothers who rarely stop their numskull arguments. And like Wayne Wang in "Smoke," he integrates his offbeat characters into a real community. Wang used Brooklyn; Hosoya chose Hoboken -- a New Jersey town best known as the birthplace of Frank Sinatra (who famously disowned it).

The problem is, Hosoya's idols made their breakthrough films in the mid-'90s -- an eon ago in indie-film time. The film's attempts at deadpan humor would have sounded flat even in 1994. Now, the whole mix has a "greatest hits" flavor -- but the originals are still better.

Beth (Ashley) is a widow living quietly in an old house in Hoboken with her two grown grandsons: Gabe (Jayce Bartok) and Brad (Lee Holmes), who dream of buying a pizza parlor but can barely be bothered to answer the door. Then she has some old jewelry appraised and learns that the stone on a wedding ring her husband gave her 30 years ago is a diamond worth $10 million. When the local media gets hold of this story, Beth becomes a celebrity -- and a target. But instead of doing the smart thing and hastening the ring to a safe-deposit box, she keeps it with her for sentimental reasons.

This verges on Roger Ebert's definition of an Idiot Plot -- i.e., a plot whose central problem would immediately be solved if the principals involved were not idiots. Naturally, the layabout grandsons start seeing dollar signs and begin plotting to relieve Granny of her treasure. They are not the only ones: an old jewel thief (Gazzara) and his young Chinese partner (Ken Leung) also move in for an easy kill.

But the grandsons and the Chinese guy are bumblers whose ridiculous attempts to heist the gem only draw the attention of the police, particularly a sleazy Hoboken detective (Thomas Jay Ryan) and his African-French partner (Isaach de Bankole), who claims the diamond is a French national treasure. Meanwhile, the thief is renewing an old acquaintance with Beth -- and finding romance instead of larceny in his heart. Then the diamond goes missing and the scramble for the culprit(s) is on.

The silliness of the story might not have mattered if the dialogue was clever, but Hosoya and his co-writers rarely rise above the type of cutesy backchat and tired homilies typical of failing sitcoms. The actors struggle gamely with this material, but the only one to rise above it is Ashley, who found fame in Broadway comedy in the early '60s ("Take Her, She's Mine," "Barefoot in the Park"). She then enjoyed a brief career as a Hollywood leading lady before settling into character roles, including an appearance in Todd Solondz's 1998 black comedy "Happiness." In "Hoboken," she plays Granny as a sex goddess come to earth -- over 60, overweight and cracking wise in a whiskey-and-cigarettes voice, but still able to set Gazzara's pulse racing with those big, lewdly beautiful eyes and a laugh that comes from directly south of the solar plexus.

When she's on the screen, the movie comes to life; when she's off, it fades into insignificance. For her much-deserved comeback, though, Ashley needs a better vehicle than this piece of eager-to-please foolery. Her agent and Tarantino's really ought to have lunch.



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