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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Money for Nothing' a Comedy Worth Something

September 10, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Money for Nothing" (citywide), a wry and robust comedy laced with folly and despair, is set deftly in motion with a string of crucial "ifs."

If only the shrill, greedy owner (Lenny Venito) of a Philadelphia armored transport company hadn't been such a cheapskate, making it incredibly easy for the back doors of one of his dilapidated trucks to fly open when it hits a pothole, thus dumping $1.2 million in unmarked Federal Reserve funds on the street. If only that day the older brother (James Gandolfini), a senior longshoreman of iron-clad principles, would have picked his own younger brother Joey (John Cusack) from a daily pool of unemployed men. If only Joey and his pal (Michael Rapaport) hadn't been driving by only moments after the loot hits the pavement. If only a cop (Michael Madsen) from the neighborhood weren't so smart and so lucky . . .

Joey Coyle's pal won't touch all those unmarked $100 bills with a 10-foot pole, but in an instant the sight of all that money confronts Joey with the bitter frustrations that envelop his life. He just can't resist temptation, and he thinks he's smart enough to get away with it.

Based on an actual incident that occurred in 1981--but is actually more timely now in its implications--"Money for Nothing" allows director Ramon Menendez (whose first film was "Stand and Deliver") and his co-writers Tom Musca and Carol Sobieski to take a bemused look at human nature and to depict vividly life in blue-collar South Philadelphia with its tightly knit community anchored by neighborhood bars and Catholic churches. It has a warm, hearty atmosphere, but it's also a place where it's getting tougher and tougher to make it in today's economy.

While Joey's older brother is content to raise his own family under his widowed mother's roof, Joey, at 26, wants out. But he's so broke and so frustrated he's in the process of losing his girlfriend (Debi Mazar), who after three years at an investment firm has managed to work herself up from a receptionist's position to a low rung on the corporate ladder. He just can't resist throwing around a little of his new riches, inadvertently setting himself up as the local Robin Hood.

"Money for Nothing" further confirms John Cusack's versatility. He plays a working-class Irish-American as if he were born and bred in South Philly and, most important, suggests that Joey is foolish and unlucky rather than simply stupid and greedy. Cusack's splendid portrayal is matched by the uniformly fine performances by a large and formidable cast that includes Fionnula Flanagan as Joey's sensible, loving mother, Maury Chaykin as an exceptionally literate and philosophical bookie and Benicio Del Toro as the bookie's henchman, an eager-to-please hood from the time he was in high school with Joey.

"Money for Nothing" brings to mind "The Pope of Greenwich Village" in its earthy urban grit and gallery of well-drawn ethnic portraits. Like that film, "Money for Nothing" exudes compassion for the underdog dreamer but could use more personality and punch in putting over its dynamite story. Even so, it's a winner because of the inherent strength of its material and its cast. For all its humor "Money for Nothing" (rated R for language and for a scene of sexuality) is marked by an ever-growing undertow of sadness that's all but palpable.

Although shocking, it's somehow not all that surprising to learn that the real Joey Coyle, having cooperated in bringing his story to the screen, was found dead at age 40 in his Philadelphia home last Aug. 15. Described by Menendez as "a generous guy with a big heart" and as "childlike but with a fiery skepticism about himself" by Cusack, Coyle hanged himself with an electrical cord.

'Money for Nothing'

John Cusack: Joey Coyle

Debi Mazar: Monica Russo

Michael Madsen: Detective Pat Laurenzi

Benicio Del Toro: Dino Palladino

A Buena Vista release of a Hollywood Pictures production. Director Ramon Menendez. Producer Tom Musca. Executive producers David Permut, Gordon Freeman, Matthew Tolmach. Screenplay by Menendez & Musca and Carol Sobieski. Cinematographer Tom Sigel. Editor Nancy Richardson. Costumes Zeca Seabra. Music Craig Safan. Production design Michelle Minch. Art director Beth Kuhn. Set decorator Jeffrey Paul Johnson. Sound Dennis Maitland II. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (for language and a scene of sexuality).

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