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De Leon's 'The Big Squeeze': Have-Nots and a Fake Miracle

September 06, 1996|JACK MATHEWS | FOR THE TIMES

John Steinbeck's 1935 novel "Tortilla Flat" reportedly gave writer-director Marcus De Leon the inspiration for his comic film noir "The Big Squeeze," but if he didn't volunteer the information, no one would likely make the connection.

The two stories are set among have-nots in Latino communities, and each involves a church "miracle." But where "Tortilla Flat" was rich in colorful characters, Steinbeck's specialty, "The Big Squeeze" hasn't an interesting soul or idea to call its own.

The hole begins in the center, with Benny (Peter Dobson), a con man/drifter who, after being thrown off a train near Highland Park in Los Angeles, heads for the nearest bar to look for a warm bed and a fresh scam. One barmaid (Teresa Dispina) provides the bed, another (Lara Flynn Boyle) gives him an idea. Her husband, Henry (Luca Bercovici), a disabled professional baseball player, has hidden a $136,000 insurance settlement from her, and in a blink, Benny is conniving to take Henry's money from him and steal his wife in the bargain.

Knowing that Henry is a born-again Christian, Benny fakes a miracle at a local mission. He plants a magnolia tree, after getting a priest to bless it, then returns every night to dig it up and replace it with a larger specimen. He then cites it as a sign from God that Henry should go forth--to the bank--and turn over his nest egg to the church. Of course, Benny will be happy to handle the exchange.

Don't ask why Henry wouldn't give the money directly to the mission, if he were so inclined. De Leon's is one of those scripts where characters and behavior are modified out of convenience. A romantic subplot between Boyle's Tanya and a sensitive gardener named Jesse (Danny Nucci) seems to exist for no reason other than to give Boyle a nude scene and to suggest that Tanya would never end up with a geek like Benny. We might ask, why? She's already ended up with Henry.

"The Big Squeeze" is more shaggy dog than film noir, and for it to work at all, we have to be amused or charmed with Benny's style, with his ability to sweet-talk and con everyone from barmaids to priests. But Dobson doesn't make Benny the least charismatic; he makes him a cocky, totally charmless loser. The real miracle would be if they didn't just throw him back on the next train.


* MPAA rating: R, for sexuality and some language. Times guidelines: Sex scenes make it inappropriate for youngsters.

'The Big Squeeze'

Peter Dobson: Benny

Luca Bercovici: Henry

Danny Nucci: Jesse

Lara Flynn Boyle: Tanya

Teresa Dispina: Cece

A Zeta Entertainment production, released by First Look Pictures. Writer-director Marcus De Leon. Producers Zane W. Levitt, Mark H. Yellen, Liz McDermott. Editor Sonny Baskin. Production design J. Rae Fox. Cinematography Jacques Haitkin. Costumes Charmian Schreiner. Music Mark Mothersbaugh. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

* At selected theaters throughout Southern California.

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