JERRY AND TOM (1998) / Comedy-Drama

Running Length: 107 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for violence and pervasive language.

Cast: Joe Mantegna, Sam Rockwell, Maury Chaykin, Charles Durning, William H. Macy, Ted Danson, Peter Reigert, Sarah Polley
Director: Saul Rubinek
Producer: Lions Gate Films
Screenplay: Rick Cleveland (based upon his play)

Jerry and Tom is a wholly unknown work of cohesive directorial vision, showing us independent cinema at its absolute and unprecedented best. It is a film so unknown to modern audiences that it maintains somewhere around 300 user ratings on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, which is a low, low number in this day and age. But should that matter? Should the merit of a film be based on its own popularity? Why, of course not. You’ll find that some of best films are the ones that no one’s heard about.

The film focuses on the titular characters of Jerry and Tom (Sam Rockwell and Joe Mantegna), a pair of low-rent hitmen that work at a used car dealership. The owners, Billy (Maury Chaykin) and Vic (Charles Durning), often need “help” when it comes to solving messy situations, so when the time comes, the true talents of Jerry and Tom are put to use.

From there, Jerry and Tom follows the along the lines of many movies that came before it, but never too closely. Tom shows Jerry the ropes and teaches him how to go about his executions in the most professional way possible. But Jerry lacks the coolness and calmness of Tom. He’s talkative and show-offy and likes to do things his own way, which proves to be a little dangerous from time to time, and Tom doesn’t have the patience to deal with it.Of the two, Tom is the oldest and the wisest and has been in the business the longest. Jerry, on the other hand, is a newcomer. In fact, his becoming a hitman was entirely by accident. (He was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.) So, due to his inexperience in the field, Tom takes him under his wing.

Where Jerry and Tom draws its strengths from is its director, Saul Rubinek, whose direction is extremely impressive considering the fact that he is an actor. His style is very visual, most notably in the film’s transitions, where one scene will shift to another without cutting a single time, giving us the illusion that the two have blended perfectly together. Rubinek also keeps the mood very light-hearted, despite how dark the subject matter is, and chooses to keep most of the violence off-screen. Rick Cleveland’s script (which was based off of his own one-act play) features original characters and a good, if morbid, sense of humor.

Mantegna and Rockwell both excel in their roles, each offering a well-modulated and humorous performance. Mantegna remains consistently calm throughout, keeping a cool and relaxed demeanor, and Rockwell plays off of him so well. The other supporting performances from the likes of Maury Chaykin, Charles Durning, and Ted Danson don’t disappoint either.

The biggest problem that Jerry and Tom has is Rubinek’s incorporation of flashbacks, which should have been left out. Take for instance the linkage between Vic and the JFK assassination. Yes, we know what happened. Yes, it sounds interesting and could have conceivably taken place. But the flashbacks take away any element of surprise. Some things are just better when left up to the imagination.

While films like Jerry and Tom go largely unmentioned in the conversations of most people, that doesn’t mean that they go entirely unnoticed. In fact, they almost garner a certain amount of prestige for being so unknown. Jerry and Tom is the kind of film that requires a fair amount of digging to exhume. It’s not out there just waiting to be watched. It’s not like everything else. It’s different and has something that a big budget can’t buy – heart.

Final rating: ★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

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