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The Big Squeeze

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“The Big Squeeze” opens with a scene involving what I have come to think of as a Teeny Prole: an actor who looks like a handsome teenage model, playing a character who is allegedly a hardened proletarian. Peter Dobson plays Benny, a con man who is thrown out of a railroad boxcar after cheating in a poker game. Uh, huh. That's how lots of GenXers spend their time.

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He rolls down an embankment and into a story that feels like a 1930s screwball comedy, but is set in the present day and, even more incredibly, doesn't seem to know it's a comedy. It plays its contrived story perfectly straight, as if events like this could happen.

Benny the con man walks into a bar and meets the two bartenders, Tanya (Lara Flynn Boyle) and Cece (Teresa Dispina). He follows Tanya home, gives her a “diamond” necklace, and then returns to try to pick up Cece. Soon he's in on a promising scam. Tanya, who spots him as a grifter, enlists him to get money out of her husband, Henry (Luca Bercovici). He's a former baseball player who has been paid $130,000 in an injury settlement, and has tried to keep the money a secret from Tanya, who has supported him for years.

Benny's scheme: He discovers that Henry is a devout Catholic, and that the local mission desperately needs $130,000 to complete earthquake repairs. He enlists the help of Jesse (Danny Nucci), a gardener whom Tanya has moved in with after leaving her husband. They will fake a miracle involving a fast-growing tree. That will inspire Henry to give the money to the mission. They will intercept the money and split it three ways. And, oh yes, there's lots more, including what happens when true believers think it's a real miracle.

I watched this movie with mounting incredulity. The plot is so ungainly that the characters spend a good deal of time just explaining it to one another. Like the miracle tree, it grows and grows. There is a certain naivete in the film that is beguiling: All of the characters act like unworldly innocents, despite the seamy milieu they inhabit. And they do things like meeting in Union Station for no better reason than that it's an attractive location.

Dobson, as the con man Benny, has a role and screen presence that reminded me of John Cusack in “The Grifters.” But that movie explained why a young man would find himself in a world of crime and deception. “The Big Squeeze” wants us to believe the baby-faced Dobson in a role that essentially requires someone like Harry Dean Stanton or Harvey Keitel--someone rough and worn, battered and experienced. Not that different casting would have saved the plot.

Lara Flynn Boyle has a hapless assignment, too. She's good as an icy brunet, but wrong here--where some scenes are too real for the material (as when her husband strikes her), and others are pure fabrication. She is required at one point to fall in love with Jesse, the gardener, and as I was watching their love scenes I could visualize the pages of the script turning, one by one, too slowly: The only reason these characters are in bed with each other, I thought, is because the screenwriter thought he was obligated to put them there.

“The Big Squeeze” is a movie without purpose, conviction or reward. I can't understand why anyone would want to tell this story--why they liked it, why they thought it would work, why anyone considered it commercial (it's pretty clear the movie was not made for artistic motives). The actors are wrong for the characters, the story is lugubrious, and when I discovered that the movie's original title was “The Body of a Woman,” somehow I wasn't surprised: It makes sense that this material would have started out attached to a title that had nothing to do with it.

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