Down The Shore
What is it about Jersey that causes filmmakers to make films which constantly talk about escaping from or dreading a return to the Garden State? If I didn’t just answer my own question, there’s always “Down The Shore,” an actors' showcase melodrama that captures the small town as a prison where characters are doomed to serve penance for sins of the past. The tourism board really needs to do something about this trend.

Jersey icon James Gandolfini is Bailey, an unlikely emcee for the local carnival grounds with his imposing shoulders and jowly grimace. Long expecting a return from Paris by his sister Susan (Maria Dizzia), he is shocked to learn that she has passed, her remains now dust in an urn. Dizzia is only glimpsed in a prologue and flashbacks, but she is a vulnerable, delicate presence. It’s not terribly unexpected that the filmmakers turn her smile into a foreboding omen.

Delivering the unfortunate news to Bailey is Susan’s husband Jacques (Eduardo Costa), a handsome Gaellic cross-breeding of Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Anthony Bourdain. Bailey is blindsided, not only because of the loss of his sister, but because of this stranger’s assumption that he is now a part of Bailey’s life, having supposedly inherited half of Bailey’s house. Jacques doesn’t realize he’s rubbing it in; as if his accent wasn’t enough, his relentlessly upbeat demeanor and ebullient personality seem positively alien in this chilly, barren environment.

The gamble of “Down The Shore” feels theatrical more than cinematic, based on the assumption that longtime friends and associates will all start to change at the same time. While Bailey easily cracks under the pressure of being paired with Jacques (and Gandolfini, it must be said, has cornered the market on wounded sarcasm), the family life of Bailey’s best friend and next door neighbor Wiley (Joe Pope) is beginning to burst at the seams. His wife Mary (Famke Janssen) apparently used to (…improbably?) date Bailey in their youth, and her feelings have curdled into sisterly affection.

What this means for the brutish Wiley is that his domestic life no longer seems put-together, and he responds with drug use and spousal abuse. Pope is the weak link in this cast – Gandolfini is such a confident, self-aware performer with reservoirs of emotion, and Janssen herself has evolved so far beyond humble beginnings to be one of the tougher leading ladies of her generation. Pope, who also produced the film, is a Shea Whigham-type. You know the requirements: white guy, blue collar, vaguely obnoxious, definitely entitled and always a bit dramatically limited. With this and the upcoming “Mud,” which features a particularly Whigham-ish villain sidekick, it looks certain that Shea Whigham is no longer an actor, but a type. Boggles the mind.

The idea of Jacques’ frou-frou positivity serving as a negative catalyst for these characters is a worthy concept. But screenwriter Sandra Jennings and director Harold Guskin never convincingly portray these changes over time, leading to narrative whiplash. As an example, one you don’t need to be a sociologist to recognize: Bailey is a lifelong friend of Mary and Wiley, but he seems incredulous that the uncouth, vulgar Wiley would ever lift a hand against Mary, even after she sports the most obvious shiner in the world. Even if someone were that slow to realize their best friend was a monster, they wouldn’t immediately cast a sideways glance at him as a prospective enemy after gradually making up their mind, particularly as they live next door to each other. Either it’s a snap decision or a gradual acceptance of this knowledge, and the film wants to play it both ways, making Bailey a putz despite the emotional intelligence and sensitivity Gandolfini shows.

The film is further padded out by the slow revelation of a crucial secret that binds these characters together. It makes sense that we would learn these truths through Jacques’ eyes, but most of the storytelling feels like it’s in this vein, as if the film won’t show its cards as a way of creating fake suspense. One of the film’s sneakier tricks is not revealing the cause of Susan’s death until late in the picture, despite the fact that the characters seem to be aware. It leads the audience to suspect Jacques of having sinister intentions: if that was the goal, a better way of accomplishing this would be to eliminate the prologue where we meet Susan and simply introduce Jacques at Bailey’s doorstep.

Despite these contrivances, “Down The Shore” at least deserves credit for its strong performances (though the less said about too-old John Magaro’s turn as Mary’s autistic son, the better). The idea of bear-ish Gandolfini and still-stunning Janssen being an item in the past is questionable, but the two of them sell this bond as crucial, the two best friends in what looks like a ghost town -- even the carnival looks bombed out and depleted. But leave it to these two to turn what feels like deleted scene filler into essential emotional exposition, drawing the map that details their relationship over the years. When they hurt, dialogue is entirely unnecessary (and director Harold Guskin is smart enough to realize this), and their faces tell a story that ends up being more affecting than anything else onscreen. [C]