The last place you want to visit in midwinter is gray, freezing Buffalo, New York. The last people you want to see in the last place you want to visit are Jimmy and Janet Brown, a pair of comic demons so indifferent, so surreally out of touch, that they scarcely recognize their own son when he knocks at the front door. As everyone knows, the last guys you want to bet on in the Super Bowl are the Buffalo Bills. And the last thing you want to be looking for on a snowy day in downtown Buffalo is a functioning men's room.
The Buffalo Chamber of Commerce probably won't approve, but these are some of the key elements in Vincent Gallo's strange -- and strangely affecting -- independent feature Buffalo '66. Against long odds -- lousy weather, a psychopath for a protagonist, and a long bowling scene -- it turns out to be a most rewarding trip to what may be the least beloved city in the United States. (Fargo doesn't count. Besides, earlier moviemakers have already spoiled the place.)
Gallo, whose resume (actor, rock-'n'-roll musician, composer, painter, Calvin Klein model) makes him look like a cranky job-jumper, now adds movie director to the list, and he may have found his true calling at last. Already branded (or blessed) with a reputation as an edgy, smart-ass, difficult guy to work with -- his acting credits include Abel Ferrara's The Funeral (1996), Alan Taylor's Palookaville (1996), and Bille August's The House of the Spirits (1993) -- he brings his quirkiest talents to bear here on the unlikely relationship between one Billy Brown, an enraged ex-convict with murder on his mind, and a needy blond teenager named Layla (Christina Ricci), who sweetly dreams of being a tap dancer.
Need we say that Gallo also stars as Billy, cowrote the script, composed the score, and, from the look of things, rummaged through the local Goodwill to come up with the costumes?
"You can eat all the food you want," the none-too-bright Billy explains to Layla five minutes after kidnapping her from a dance studio. "Just make me look good." His mission? Drag his victim and her two pounds of eye shadow over to Mom and Dad's and have her play the part of his adoring -- and fictitious -- wife, Wendy. How will Billy explain the five years he's been gone? Not jail; rather, top-secret work for the CIA. Later in the evening, he plans to drop by a Buffalo strip joint and kill the place-kicker who ruined Billy's life when he missed the winning field goal in the Bills' Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. Nice and neat.
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In the darker regions of Gallo's imagination, though, the situation can only get more bizarre. Not only does the imperturbable Layla fall in love with the play-acting forced on her by a violent stranger, but she falls in love with the violent stranger. Neither of them, however, is as peculiar as Billy's mother (Anjelica Huston), who's so obsessed with football she can't remember her kid's childhood, or his father (Ben Gazzara), who can't get over his failure as a lounge singer.
What's for dinner at the Browns'? Tripe, of course.
Darkly comic and forced in places, this hardly seems the stuff of romance. But Ricci (a busy woman of late, what with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Opposite of Sex also on view) and Gallo cook up some nice chemistry. The detached jailbird and the yearning waif are, in the end, identical under the skin -- a pair of lost children who can find only each other -- and his antic energy is just the right foil for her nubile innocence.
In fact, Buffalo '66 may be the low-budget wonder of the year, a directorial debut that suggests the attitudinal street smarts of early Scorsese and the stubborn purity of Cassavetes, just slightly diminished by rookie self-consciousness. Set in Antarctica, studded with improbabilities, and featuring a weird cameo by Mickey Rourke, no less, as Billy's vengeful bookie, it has the kind of brave comic charm that's hard to find in movies twice as hip and ten times as big. Shuffle off to Buffalo for two hours: It's well worth the fare.
Directed by Vincent Gallo. Written by Gallo and Alison Bagnall. Starring Gallo, Christina Ricci, Anjelica Huston, and Ben Gazzara.