For no good reason, other than perhaps to distinguish his film from other mean-street sagas we’ve had lately, Abel Ferrara has set “The Funeral” in Depression-era Yonkers, N.Y., replete with moody period decor and costumes.
But his movie feels less like a vintage 1930s gangster flick than like the ‘90s “Godfather”/”Pulp Fiction” clone that it really is. It’s very modern, very small and very pretentious, with the kind of Tarantino-style hoods who philosophize nearly as much as they maim, rape, bludgeon and kill.
Done in the style of a stage play that’s been expanded for the screen, “The Funeral” revolves almost entirely around a funeral and the ramifications that it has on one low-rent mob family, the Tempios, an atheistic clan that’s in the business of offering protection to unions. The youngest of three Tempio brothers, Johnny (Vincent Gallo) - he calls himself Johnny Temple - is the most radical and intellectual, leaning toward Communism. One day, after studying Humphrey Bogart’s performance in “The Petrified Forest” at the local bijou, Johnny is gunned down in cold blood. Just like Dillinger.
Naturally, this troubles Johnny’s two older brothers - the regal Ray (Christopher Walken), who is way less stable than he lets on, and the hair-trigger Chez (Chris Penn), a big, blubbery guy who has a bad, bad temper and who is as scary as hell. When Chez tells his old-country wife (Isabella Rossellini) that they’re going to have sex, she quakes. And we understand why.
Ray, who is inexplicably married to a sensitive woman (Annabella Sciorra) who went to college for two years, decides that the family’s honor is at stake and wants to avenge Johnny’s death. Ray has good experience at this. When he was a kid, about 13, his father ordered him to shoot and kill a family enemy whose hands and feet were tied, while his two younger brothers watched. The old man referred to it as Ray’s Italian Bar Mitzvah, his coming of age.
This sequence is the highlight of the film, punching across the ideas of how children can be damaged and how violence becomes circular. It’s better than anything in the similarly themed “Sleepers.” But the rest of the film fails.
Ray and Chez are convinced that Johnny was murdered by Gaspare (Benicio Del Toro), a rival gang lord, because Johnny was allegedly having a torrid affair with Gaspare’s wife.
But in the two sex sequences that happen to feature Johnny, he doesn’t seem to be interested in sex - hanging out with an old madam at a porno-film orgy and watching a buddy go at it in another scene.
So, while Ray and his wife debate the pros and cons of killing and the effects it has on the family (you never understand why this woman is with him), Chez grows increasingly berserk, an emotion that seems to come to Penn far too easily. He has a memorable outburst at Johnny’s coffin during the viewing. Later, he rapes a young prostitute because she negotiated too well and, as Chez puts it, sold her soul. Then, he goes crazy again.
Chez becomes numbingly repetitious, while Ray just talks in circles. And so goes “The Funeral.”
xxxx 1. “The Funeral” Location: The Magic Lantern Credits: Directed by Abel Ferrara, starring Christopher Walken, Chris Penn, Vincent Gallo, Benicio Del Toro, Annabella Sciorra, Isabella Rossellini, Gretchen Mol, Paul Hipp and John Ventimiglia Running time: 1:38 Rating: R
2. Other views This is what other critics say about “The Funeral:” Bob Strauss/Los Angeles Daily News: Basically an excuse for a bunch of actors to talk tough and shoot each other … Wait! This isn’t “Mad Dog Time.” But even though “The Funeral” is a more straightforward and serious-minded crime movie, both films are about equally pretentious and difficult to watch. William Arnold/Seattle Post-Intelligencer: It’s a movie so filled with competent actors and long, slow-paced scenes that it begs to be taken seriously as some weighty, tortured psychological drama. But a closer inspection revels a pretentious, unpleasant, Ed Wood version of “The Godfather.” Michael Janusonis/Providence Journal-Bulletin: In-your-face filmmaker Abel Ferrara, who had a nun raped in Bad Lieutenant, takes a stab at his own version of “The Godfather” in “The Funeral.” But Ferrara’s eagerness to push the shock button here, too, eventually deflates his attempts to create a moody piece.