Brian (Mark Ruffalo, "Zodiac," "Blindness") and Paulie (Ethan Hawke, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"), his best friend since childhood, make their living in the lower eschelons of organized crime on the streets of South Boston. When their boss, Pat Kelly (Brian Goodman, "Annapolis," "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift"), lands in jail, they take the opportunity to get out from under his thumb, but barely-there family man Brian is also flirting with a bad crack cocaine habit in "What Doesn't Kill You."
Cowriter (with Paul T. Murray and Donnie Wahlberg)/director Brian Goodman has been acting since the late 90's and turns to his own life story for his filmmaking debut. His biopic takes divergent, if less dramatic, paths like "The Departed" and begins with Ethan Hawke in desperate robbery attempt a la "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." Unfortunately, "What Doesn't Kill You" isn't as dramatically satisfying as either of those films, instead taking the cliched route of one man's redemption paired with another's last grasp at the golden ring. As described in the press notes, Goodman's early life on the streets, not depicted here, sounded more interesting. How did a man with no home end up with a wife and family? Still, Goodman is true to his South Boston roots, and locations and that difficult-to-nail 'Bahstan' accent add true grit.
As in "The Departed," we're introduced to Brian and Paulie as kids, stealing from the backs of delivery trucks to sell to local businesses. In one such townie bar, they are noticed by local mobster Pat Kelly (the director), who offers them a gig. Before long, they're witnessing mob killings and are in deep.
After an amusing job where they are asked to kidnap the poodle of a blackmailing girlfriend for five grand, Paulie begins to chafe when Pat takes his sizable cut of what the guys thought was their 'own' job. When Kelly's put behind bars, the guys take advantage of his absence in the drug trade, but Brian gets too caught up in it on a personal level and Pat has a long reach.
"What Doesn't Kill You" appears to be a case of personal interest story eclipsing storytelling skill. It's admirable that Brian Goodman came back from life on the streets, two jail terms and a bad drug habit to make a movie, but considering its real life genesis the movie feels awfully warmed over. Even Alex Wurman's ("Thirteen Conversations About One Thing") score, as good as it is, sounds familiar. Goodman uses several aerial shots to establish his world and locations are authentic plus, as is the casting of locals like Donnie Wahlberg ("The Sixth Sense," "Saw's II-V") as a detective and comic Lenny Clarke as a bartender. The film doesn't flow well, however, with awkward transitions from a scene that's been let play too long mashed into the next with a straight cut followed by another segue done by dissolve which calls attention to itself while accomplishing nothing.
Ruffalo is strong as Goodman's alter ego, a street tough on a downward slide, but we don't understand his motivation *to* slide. The character persistently ignores his wife, Stacy (Amanda Peet, "Changing Lanes," TV's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"), then tries to make up occasionally, but we don't know where this relationship is born from nor what is really left of it. Peet doesn't have much to work with, but lets us know that Stacey is cornered, trapped in a hopeless situation with two kids and nowhere to turn. Why her character still seems to love her husband is a mystery. Hawke is a straightforward con artist, a friend playing the honor among thieves card. He uses that mooky look of slightly lowered chin, eyes confronting from beneath brow to convey threat. As Kelly's second Jackie, Edward Lynch adds more South Boston flavor.
It's no surprise where any of this is going, but just to make sure, Goodman uses end credits for character wraps. After showing us Brian at his eldest son's football game, was it really necessary to ensure his audience that their relationship grows ever deeper? It's a bit of sentiment the film had admirably avoided until this point. "What Doesn't Kill You" gives its characters' environment loving authenticity, but leaves them themselves in need.
Robin's review will be published on opening day, 12/12/2008.
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