Posted: 09/07/1999

 

Outside Providence

(1999)

by Jon Bastian



Shawn Hatosy has all the makings of a star, but you’ll need the Hubble telescope to find a plot in Outside Providence.


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I’ll start by answering the two questions friends have asked me about Outside Providence. Shawn Hatosy does not get naked. No one of either gender does. And this is not There’s Something About Mary. A better title might be Something About Ninety Minutes.

You know the story from the trailers. Our hero, Timothy Dunphy (Hatosy) is driving with his stoner friends and crashes into a parked police cruiser. It doesn’t help that there’s enough pot smoke in Dunphy’s car to stock three Cheech & Chong movies. His wise-cracking dad (Alec Baldwin) responds by packing him off to prep school, where he tries to fit in and get the girl (Amy Smart). What the trailers imply, and it’s a lie, is that Outside Providence is another Something About Mary. The Farrelly brothers only adapted the script, they didn’t direct. Calling it a Farrelly brothers film is like calling It’s Pat a Quentin Tarantino movie. (To be fair, Peter Farrelly has very publicly emphasized his displeasure with Miramax’s efforts to hype this movie as There’s Something About Mary 2.) The source wouldn’t matter if there were substance, but the film, like its hero, wanders from point to point, never building toward a climax. This is nowhere more painfully evident than when the only clue we’ve reached the end is that Dunphy is graduating. The structure is that loose, the story that light.

I haven’t read Peter Farrelly’s novel, on which the film is based, but I suspect he wrote it when he was very young. The story has the feel of a callow fantasy with no grounding in reality. It’s a “funny stuff that happened to people I knew” meets “boy gets perfect girl” romance. Here’s the likelihood our lead couple’s relationship will last: “Boy,” who thinks Arizona has a coastline and who might go to junior college, is the son of a lower-middle class auto mechanic from Pawtucket. “Girl,” who will be going to Brown University, has upper class parents to whom Ivy League is all. You do the math… Blueblood mothers have resorted to murder to prevent lesser mismatches.

I can’t fault the actors. Baldwin is a delight as a man known only as “Pops.” He plays cards and kibitzes with his buddies, and hides his feelings with an abrasive front. Baldwin lets us know this is a man who cares deeply for his two sons, but can never express it. For Pops, calling Dunphy “Dildo” or “Assbag” is a term of endearment; he just doesn’t get that it’s an insult. The closest he gets to bonding is showing his son how to tie a tie, but it’s only Baldwin’s subtext that tells us this moment is a really big deal for Pops.

Against a pro like Baldwin, Shawn Hatosy holds his own and definitely has star potential if he gets better material to work with, which he will. Sharp eyed viewers might remember him as the track star from In & Out who was the first to shout “I’m gay” in that film’s Spartacus inspired finale. There, he came across as one hundred percent Kansas farmboy; here, he’s entirely northeastern blue collar. It’s Hatosy’s job to carry Outside Providence; he picks it up and flies with it. It’s hard to make an underachiever likeable on screen, but he pulls it off with a presence and genuine sweetness that keeps his character from being just another asshole loser like his friends back home. Hatosy, and Baldwin, are what make the film watchable, but definitely keep an eye on Hatosy. This young man is going somewhere.

The supporting cast are mostly stereotypes, but a few stand out. As best friend “Drugs” Delaney, Jon Abrahams avoids cliché and shows the real person under the burnout haze, which becomes important late in the film. As the prep school’s put-upon Irv “Jizz” Waltham, Jack Ferver makes a tricky transition from nerdboy to guy who can take care of himself. Giving just a hint of the anger he’s repressed for years, Jizz is the guy who’ll end up on a water tower with a rifle. Finally, as Jane Weston, the love interest (and virtually the only female in the film) Amy Smart is a blonde vision in J. Crew, a strong woman who can hold her own against anyone. She makes it believable that Dunphy can and would admit to his friends he doesn’t care if he bangs her because he likes her. Smart projects the kind of quality that turns horny college boys into grown-up husbands overnight.

The actors labor mightily, but they just can’t bail out this sinking ship. The story feels extremely underdeveloped, and plot holes and inconsistencies abound. For example, Cornwall, the prep school, is portrayed as a conservative, repressive place with a mile-long list of prohibitions. But, other than the apparent lack of dating by Dunphy’s dorm-mates, everyone breaks the rules constantly. That a foreign student is able to construct a mega-bong out of a boiler tells us no one here takes the rules seriously. Therefore, there’s no danger or menace to Dunphy; no suspense. I lost count of how many times he went AWOL and hitchhiked home, and yet there were never consequences until the plot needed some. The filmmakers tried to have it both ways, but the most vile symbols of oppression were the rakes students had to push on punitive work detail. (Speaking of plot problems, how does a mechanic pay ritzy prep school tuition, anyway? Free valve jobs for the Trustees’ Mercedes?)

A more glaring omission involves Pops and friends. During their regular card game, one of the guys admits he’s gay and is kicked out by the most conservative member of the gang. Later, the five men are back playing cards as if nothing happened, the gay friend comfortably making jokes about his sexuality. Fine, but there must have been a reason they invited him back and it would have been interesting to see. Either the filmmakers cut the explanation or it never existed, but I suspect the latter.

This brings up another issue, and a big one. Dunphy’s little brother Jackie is in a wheelchair, due to a childhood accident. Dunphy explains his condition in a throwaway voice-over. I won’t ruin the joke, except to say it involved a fall from a roof, and Dunphy was unintentionally involved. Later on, Dunphy nearly throws someone else off a roof, but the connection is never made. We don’t see the instant when he might have thought of his little brother and decided not to give the heave-ho. Consequently, the scene has the emotional impact of a flea bite.

I usually don’t pick on technical flaws in films that obviously had low budgets, but how can I not when I realize I’m gaffe-spotting during pivotal scenes? Outside Providence has the sloppiest editing I’ve seen aside from student films. It’s jarring to watch an actor’s hands swapping position from shot to shot, or to see that angles established in the master don’t match in the close-ups. I’m sure the continuity errors would fill several pages. If someone wants to count them, they’re welcome to it.

Outside Providence is a fairy tale in which the hero literally climbs through a window to save the damsel in distress. But, like Pops says, “Life ain’t no fairy tale.” If you’re not going to include the castles and dragons, you’d better include something. Outside Providence doesn’t, so no matter how handsome and valiant the prince, alone, he’s not enough.

Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles, and a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.



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