In his directorial debut Jason Alexander seems to have taken the title of Marshall Karp’s script, a nostalgic coming-of-age tale about a 14-year old boy from the Bronx who’s determined to witness a sex act during the summer he’s spending with his aunt and uncle in Queens, too seriously. The actor and neophyte helmer appears to have given primary attention to the visual recreation of 1955 New York, and as a result the film luxuriates in getting the details of storefronts, house interiors, clothing, hairstyles and cars right. For a small picture, “Just Looking” has been meticulously mounted, and the effort makes it quite pleasing to the eye.
Unfortunately, there are actors in front of the carefully constructed settings, and they have to recite dialogue and go through the motions of a plot which can only be called stilted and precious. If one could close off his ears, set aside the obviousness of the situations that the human characters are engaged in, and simply appreciate the production design of the picture, Alexander’s debut might be quite impressive. Unfortunately, those other elements keep intruding on our field of vision and hearing, and it’s impossible to ignore the sitcom-level artificiality of everything that’s going on.
Karp’s glib script focuses on Lenny (Ryan Merriman), a Bronx kid whose widowed mom Sylvia (Patti LuPone) has recently remarried; but Lenny despises his stepfather, an obese, sweaty butcher named Polinsky (Rich Licata). The newlyweds decide to send the boy to spend the summer with his mom’s pregnant sister Norma (Ilana Levine) and her Italian husband Phil (Peter Onerati) in Brooklyn to give themselves some space. The initially-depressed lad soon finds himself with new friends his own age, most notably likable John (Joey Franquinha) and his solemn pal Alice (Amy Braverman), who have what they call a “sex club” in which they share innocuous, and often inaccurate, information about doing it. This fits right in with Lenny hormonal urges, and before long he’s enamoured of neighborhood beauty Hedy (Gretchen Mol), a nurse and bra model on whom he pins his hopes of seeing the act of intercourse in the flesh, as it were.
Since “Just Looking” is set nearly half a century ago, of course, all of the smarminess implicit in the scenario is played without much more grossness than one might have gotten in an average episode of “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Leave It To Beaver” (though the ripe New York atmosphere is more suggestive of a show like “Brooklyn Bridge”). But of course that doesn’t stop everything from being hopelessly exaggerated, with characterizations that are brutally broad and plot twists one can see coming a mile away. Karp’s script is mostly responsible, but Alexander’s heavy hand exacerbates things; he clearly encourages his mostly able cast to ham it up as though they were perrforming for the small screen, straining to have viewers see their mugging, rather than on the big one, and his rhythm is off, so that most scenes go on just a tad longer than they should.
Under these conditions the cast works hard–too hard, in far–and comes off as desperate. Merriman seems an amiable young man, but he’s not charismatic enough for such a pivotal role, and his acting seems far too effortful. Mol is lusciousness personified, but her acting doesn’t match her looks. Onorati preens and postures as the Italian in the family, and Levine and LuPone put more effort into moving gracefully under the weight of singularly unattractive hairdos to give much effort to their acting. Franquinha and Braverman are likable as Lenny’s chums, and Rich Licata gets a chance to turn from villain to semi-heroic fugure as the boy’s stepdad.
When all’s said and done, however, “Just Looking” isn’t much more than an extended episode of one of those TV sitcoms that centers on a juvenile’s coming-of-age, and its careful recreation of 1955 Brooklyn doesn’t compensate for its clumsy writing, labored acting and barely workmanlike direction.