Last Exit To Brooklyn Review

Save perhaps the Deep South, there's probably no cross-section of American life more thoroughly documented than mid-century Manhattan, be it in film, theater, or black and white photographs mounted on the wall at upscale chain restaurants. This isn't really surprising, as there are few locales with an aesthetic better defined in the American imagination than this one, and Last Exit To Brooklyn wears it like a stocking cap; galavanting GIs, workmen with layered muscles, and crimson-lipped honeys all make their presence felt here. But this impression of old Manhattan was born out of sentimentality as much as anything else, and the heart of Last Exit is anything but. One would have to look far and wide to find a vision of New York crueler and less empathetic than the one presented here, but the mask it presents is still one that could hardly be more romantic if it were shot in sepia tone. This disconnect isn't fatal, but it does keep the wounded heart of Last Exit To Brooklyn wrapped in cellophane; off-center, distant, and out-of-reach.

The year is 1952, and the steelwork employees have been on strike for six long months. Their morale is weakening, and their children are starting to become gaunt, but Harry Black (Stephen Lang) is in no hurry for it to end.  As an official union officer for the strike, he's living better than he ever did before, although he's just about the only one that you could say that for. Most of the rest of the steelworkers (Peter Dobson, Stephen Baldwin) spend their idle time up to no good, while Big Joe (Burt Young) simply struggles to deal with the fact that Tommy (John Costolloe) impregnated his unmarried daughter. They are all subject to the predations and delights of Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a platinum blonde prostitute with a bad habit of robbing her customers, and Georgette (Alexis Arquette), one member of a surprisingly vibrant homosexual subculture, of which Harry, though married and with a child, is also a member. All of them can be divided into one of two categories; those who recognize the limits of their lifestyle and aspire to stratums beyond it, and those who don't, and embrace it with hellish abandon.

Though the film is ostensibly an ensemble, it is anchored to great effect by the two performances at its center: Lang as Brown and Leigh as Tralala. It helps that those are the two characters with any real sexual dimension, and that they are the two with any real aspirations beyond the old four walls that Brooklyn has afforded them. They are also the two that seem most like they could have walked out of a Bowery Boys short, to both the film’s credit and detriment. Brooklyn is swimming in the accoutrements of its time period (which may well be accurate), and the two of them play right into it, far more than the tough guy schtick that Dobson and Baldwin are afforded. It helps to forge a sense of time and place, but also artifice, in a storyline that needs anything but.

Hubert Selby Jr.’s original novel was challenged in a number of countries for its frank portrayal of sexuality, both gay and straight, and, to its credit, the adaptation has largely preserved that, particularly in a period before handling of either topic could be considered vanguard. The most notorious scene (a gang rape) is preserved in shocking detail, with absolutely no cut-aways for artistic effect or cowardly impressionism; it’s right there for you to look at. But while everything that has happened up until that point has all but guaranteed that this would be the climax, it still feels slightly out-of-place. Part of that can be chalked up to director Uli Edel’s apparent discomfort at shooting in New York (some of it was shot on location, while the rest was shot at a studio in Germany). For all the raw material at source here, a good deal of its power seems untapped because as much as the film looks like New York, it never really feels like New York. There are no crowds of bustling people, nor even a sense of motion that even the most casual visitor to the city will tell you is omnipresent. Lang and Leigh both effect a realism that Edel can’t keep up with, as his is the New York of pastiche and romance, rather than the gutter flowers and the sewer that springs them. 

Bonus Features

There's also an audio commentary featuring director Uli Edel, and a brief making-of documentary.

"Last Exit To Brooklyn" is on sale October 10, 2011 and is rated R. Drama. Directed by Uli Edel. Written by Desmond Nakano. Starring Burt Young, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jerry Orbach, Stephen Baldwin, Stephen Lang, Peter Dobson, Alexis Arquette.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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