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Movies

Review: The real Leary finally walking down 'Monument Ave.'

Web posted on: Tuesday, October 06, 1998 5:28:50 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I've always had high hopes for Denis Leary as an actor, but my regard for his charisma has been tested several times already, and he's just getting started.

The way he commands a stage during his often devastating stand-up routines, sucking on cigarettes and spitting out bile at a speed-freak clip, you have to figure that he'd be fully capable of taking charge in front of a movie camera.

Clip: "Break in"

Video clip: 1.9Mb QuickTime

I've bitched several times about the ridiculously clichéd roles he's chosen to play in the past couple of years, though. They're usually silly tough-guys written by would-be Tarantinos who think that gangsters talking about show tunes and stylish footwear are the cutting edge of hipness. Honestly, "Underworld" is one of the most pathetic things I've covered since I started writing reviews. And there Denis was, snarling cutesy, incoherent dialogue and threatening to stick a gun down somebody's throat every five minutes. He does a variation on this in "Love Walked In," too.

His penchant for overdone gangster agitation left me less than hopeful about the prospects of his newest movie, Ted Demme's "Monument Ave." The early word from Sundance was that this was nothing but another "Mean Streets" re-hash (with Irish guys drinking and blasting each other away in Boston, rather than Italians kick-ass carousing in New York City), and Demme's lame track record isn't the most encouraging thing in the world, either.

Leary makes good in 'Monument'

It's with great satisfaction, then, that I get to report that "Monument Ave.," though it's pretty lacking in plot thrust a lot of the time, is a somber, engrossing character study. And, Leary, praise the Lord, is damn-near great! I really think that he gives one of the best performances of 1998 in this movie, not that much of anybody really seems to be noticing.

Leary stars as Bobby O'Grady, and (considering the generic Irishness) you gotta figure it's just a matter of time before he sees his name up in lights above a new chain restaurant at the mall. Bobby inhabits the bottom portion of the totem pole as a hood in one of Boston's more brogue-saturated working class neighborhoods.

He and his mostly amiable crew (populated by several good actors, especially the always memorable Ian Hart) specialize in stealing cars. His cousin, Seamus (Jason Barry), is also in America from Ireland, looking to get work while getting drawn deeper and deeper into Bobby's world of crime, drinking, and coke-snorting. (Be warned if kids are coming, no one in the movie is the least bit averse to several good toots.)

Bobby and his friends answer to Jackie O'Hara (Colm Meany, who also does fine work), and, though he's a mean s.o.b., even he seems pretty small potatoes for a crime lord. Nobody really adheres very strictly to the expected mob movie pecking order, the one where the Big Guy's hand is continually getting kissed and "homage" is always being paid in suitcases full of greenbacks.

These guys get together and play street hockey when they aren't laying bets on Celtics and Boston College games. Bobby even still lives with his mom. It's all fairly pronounced in its presentation, but the atmosphere feels dead-on.

Even though a too-long early scene shows Leary and his buddies piggishly naming which Hollywood actresses they would most like to sleep with (Leary, surprisingly poignantly, finally admits that none of those women would touch them), Bobby's still got a sometime girlfriend who looks like Famke Janssen.

Janssen sharp, too

That's because she is Famke Janssen, and here we go again. Last year I saw Janssen in a pretty dumb movie called "City of Industry," and was floored by the inherent depth she added to a rather poorly written role. (I didn't remember that I first saw her when she was a James Bond girl.) Since then, I believe I've only seen her sort of sit there and look great in "Rounders."

She's given a nice little role this time as a young woman who sleeps with Leary, but can't really seem to figure out if that means she loves him. There's a beautiful moment when she hesitantly breaks down crying on her friend's shoulder that gave me a tangible little shudder of recognition.

That's two movies now where she's affected me with such a small, unexpected gesture, and she seems very sharp when I see her being interviewed on TV. I think she's going to be an Oscar nominee after a couple more performances in higher profile roles. (She'll soon be seen in Woody Allen's "Celebrity.")

Demme and screenwriter Mark Armstrong seem almost solely concerned with Leary's character, as far as plot goes -- sometimes to a fault. There's very little in the way of traditional story telling. We just watch a small-timer slowly realize that his friends are being killed for less than good reasons, and he has to do something about it if he plans to go on living with himself. Leary is locked into the performance to a degree that he's never managed before.

Maybe the Boston atmosphere (that's where he grew up) gave him a head start, but I didn't doubt one second of what he was doing. All the camaraderie aside, these are not particularly likable characters, yet he still manages to make you care about Bobby. It's been a long time since even Robert DeNiro pulled that one off, and Leary deserves as much credit as he can get.

Hurrah for young actors

This is a bit beyond the scope of "Monument Ave.," but I'd just like to close by saying that there seems to be a groundswell of great new actors out there. By young, I mean people who've only been in a handful of movies and haven't yet had the opportunity to turn their performances into a completely expected series of self-devised tics and gestures. Leary, Janssen, and Hart are all just great in "Monument Ave.," and Billy Crudup is also very good in a teensy but pivotal role early in the movie. And that's just the ones in this cast.

I've also been very impressed with Julianne Moore, Matt Damon, Claire Forlani, Ed Norton, Joaquin Phoenix, Vince Vaughn, Janeane Garofalo, and a few others in the rather recent past. Most (though certainly not all) of these folks are quirky, character-oriented performers who've only now begun to get the interesting roles. I'm glad I can finally quit pretending that the movies' biggest hopes for the future are Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz. Now if we could just find more unpretentious, absorbing directors.

At long last, there seems to be some hope out there.


"Monument Ave." gives the movies of Martin Scorsese a run for their money when it comes to overuse of the soul-corrupting "F" word. I've also never seen so much coke use in one film. There's violence, but no nudity. A couple of the characters are unrepentantly racist, and there's a scary scene when they terrorize a black man who's dared to wander into their neighborhood. Rated R. 93 minutes.

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