Sometimes the most frustrating movie to watch is the one that falls just short of its potential. As the minutes pass, you realize that certain filmic tics won’t subside and that when the lights come up you’ll still feel unfulfilled. Robert Davi’s directorial debut The Dukes overflows with strong performances and deftly balances a poignant comedic tone. But you’ll leave wishing that Davi and his co-writer James Andronica had relinquished some control and put the script in more experienced hands.
In addition to writing and directing, Davi stars alongside Chazz Palminteri, Peter Bogdanovich, and relative unknowns Frank D’Amico and Elya Baskin, among others. Although he’s a first-time director, Davi’s deeply shadowed face has filled his acting résumé with a substantial “bad guy” career. His on-set experience undoubtedly created a nice rapport between the actors, and it shows on the screen. Balancing hope and cynicism, honesty and just a touch of deceit, the well-cast ensemble brings a relentless energy to the story.
The film follows The Dukes, a successful doo-wop group who peaked in 1963. Now aging and broke, cousins Danny (Davi) and George (a charmingly indulgent Palminteri), along with their pals -- stand-up comic Armond (D’Amico) and former airplane mechanic/stoner Murph (Baskin) -- will do just about anything for some cash.
The opening scene, a dinner round table replete with circling camera and volleying dialogue, gives a sense of their desperation; their skills are lacking and the job climate is rough, particularly for middle-aged songsters. What follows is an overwhelming multitude of events, all orchestrated to keep the guys from makin’ a buck. But they also keep the film from building momentum. After a failed informercial fiasco, The Dukes’ manager, Lou (a perfectly hang-dog Bogdanovich) gets them a gig as singing tomatoes; it falls short of being lucrative, but it brims with slightly sad comedy.
On another front, Danny and George work as cooks for their Aunt Vee (Miriam Margolyes, overacting), so they hype a visit from a restaurant thief named Zoro, hoping to bring in business. Meanwhile, George chases chubbies and deals with dental troubles; Danny tries to provide for his son (Dominic Scott Kay) and ex-wife (Melora Hardin of “The Office”); Murph fights the airline company that fired him; and Armond struggles with his diabetic condition (a story line intended to accommodate D’Amico’s condition; he passed away in June). It’s all meant to create depth of character and color the Los Angeles setting with detail, but it feels more cobbled together than gently woven.
When the men finally decide to rob a dental lab -- Danny overhears George’s dentist talking about the piles of gold kept in the safe -- the story gains speed and the tone settles in to become pitch perfect. We’re never concerned about the morality of their plan; we just want to see these four bumbling men try to crack a safe and abscond with some expensive gold teeth. Davi delivers. It’s a beautiful, charming, silly sequence, and the simplicity of the action allows us to savor the minutiae of the actors’ characterizations. There’s even room for a little Abbott and Costello homage (George’s dentist’s name is Dr. Phoule, pronounced “fool”).
As one might expect, the film is filled with the cool tones of multi-layered harmonies and warm verve of soaring falsettos. And Nic. tenBroek’s score adds a quiet layer of emotional honesty. But by the time The Dukes reunite to perform -- a lovely rendition of The Tymes’ “So Much In Love” -- we almost wish they hadn’t, if only because the road that led there was so bumpy. Davi first conceived of the script for The Dukes in the 1970s. It didn’t make it to paper until the mid-’80s and then sat in a drawer for nearly 20 years. And while his dedication to the film is apparent -- Davi was very agitated about the sound quality at a press screening -- it can’t smooth out the script’s wrinkles. But maybe they don't matter so much, after all. Although it’s a more tiring affair than one would like, the rewards are genuine and unexpected. Perhaps that’s enough.