In the genial, low-wattage comedy "Welcome to Collinwood," a handful of petty thieves and idlers try to break into a neighborhood jewelry store thinking they've hit the criminal big time. Since that more or less describes what happens, or at least the film's excuse for a plot, it's up to the two young writer-directors, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, to fill out the balance with silly bits of business, colorful atmosphere and quick- sketch characterizations, all of which they do handily.
There isn't much else to the film beyond slapstick antics and professional gloss, but the results are diverting enough, in great measure because it's essentially a scene-by-scene remake Mario Monicelli's 1958 satire, "Big Deal on Madonna Street," a minor classic about a handful of shifty archetypes scheming their way through postwar Italy. (A parody of those caper films in which nothing goes wrong, it's a film in which nothing goes right.)
Against the dehumanizing backdrop of faceless apartment blocks, the men and their women comically bicker and struggle, looking for toeholds in the ravaged economy. One of the film's sharpest (and most political) jokes is that some of these guys would rather sweat through an elaborate robbery than face the horrors of an honest job. Even better, says one, would be the life of a retired crime boss, because you wouldn't have to do much except live off your past.
Living off the past is, of course, the nature of remakes. "Welcome to Collinwood" is at least the second iteration of "Big Deal on Madonna Street," following Louis Malle's 1984 film "Crackers," although certainly other films have limned the same territory. There's nothing wrong with living off the past, though it makes life (and art) more interesting if you bring something new to the party, the way that the Russos' heavyweight producers, Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, did with "Ocean's Eleven." "Welcome to Collinwood" isn't offensive and it's often amusing, but it's too bad that none of the smart, talented people involved in its creation didn't work harder to come up with something that came from lived experience rather than favorite movies.
"Big Deal on Madonna Street" also sprang from the movies, yet what makes it more than a parody of the sleek likes of "Rififi" is that it's less about capers and satire and more about grasshoppers desperate to avoid becoming ants. Although the Russos make the most of their grasshoppers--a Sundance All-Star lineup that includes William H. Macy, Sam Rockwell and Luis Guzman--and usually know where to put the camera, their film might as well be set on a back lot, so removed is it from the texture and vibrancy of life. Despite its gritty Cleveland locations, it has the vacuum-sealed feel of a student film bankrolled by rich uncles. One of those uncles, Clooney, has a small role as a safecracker. Even when covered in jailhouse tattoos, he's something to watch.
*MPAA rating, R for language. Times guidelines: some quasi-Mamet style profanity, but the film is fine for older teenagers who may appreciate its Three Stooges silliness.
'Welcome to Collinwood'
William H. Macy...Riley
Warner Bros. Pictures presents, in association with Pandora and H5B5 Media AG, a Section Eight Production, released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Screenwriters and directors Anthony and Joe Russo. Producers George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh. Directors of photography Lisa Rinzler and Charles Minsky. Production designer Tom Meyer. Editor Amy Duddleston. Music Mark Mothersbaugh. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.
In limited release.