Mario Monicelli’s amiable caper comedy “Big Deal on Madonna Street” (1958)–a take-off on Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” (1954), about a gang of inept crooks who try to rob a pawnshop from an apartment next door and wind up with nothing but food and romance–was already Englished once, in Louis Malle’s dull-witted “Crackers” (1984). (Bob Fosse also tried–with an equal lack of success–to transform in into a Broadway musical in 1970.) Happily the fraternal writing-and- directing team of Anthony and Joe Russo have better luck in their new version of the story. The paternity of “Welcome to Collinwood” is somewhat hidden by the fact that the credits announce that it’s based on “I Soliti Ignoti,” the original Italian title of “Madonna” (which, curiously enough, might be translated as “The Usual Suspects”), but the little picture is actually a more successful translation of Monicelli’s original than either Fosse or Malle was able to muster.
That doesn’t mean that it’s any sort of masterpiece. The material was slight even in 1958, and the passage of four decades, which have seen innumerable comic heist movies, haven’t made it any fresher. Nor do the Russo brothers show any particular directorial verve–they certainly have none of the stylistic flamboyance of either the Coens or the Wachowskis. But their script has a shambling charm to it, and they’ve managed to assemble a cast which makes it seem better than it is by reason of their slapstick skill and their deft delivery of dialogue. Sam Rockwell, a young actor still insufficiently appreciated, does nicely as the failed boxer who becomes the de facto leader of the bungling thieves, Michael Jeter has a field day as the old buzzard who literally can’t keep his pants on when it comes to the job, and Luis Guzman uses his gift for farcical anger to good effect as the poor guy who starts the ball rolling but finds himself betrayed on all sides. William H. Macy, curiously enough, is less winning as the nervous fellow who’s temporarily a single dad–the role gives him a few pleasant moments, but not enough–while Andrew Davoli and Isaiah Washington basically play straight men to the other members of the gang. The females get short shrift here, but both Patricia Clarkson and Jennifer Esposito have their moments, the former as Guzman’s would-be wife and the latter as the beautiful maid Rockwell romances. George Clooney, who produced along with Steven Soderbergh, does an extended cameo as the hard-boiled, wheelchair-bound pro who attempts to teach the amateurs how to crack a safe.
So if you’ll be satisfied to watch a bunch of talented farceurs engaging in pleasantly goofy antics–some of the business involving breaking into the apartment building and through the wall to the store wouldn’t have been out of place in a Laurel and Hardy short–the Russos’ picture should prove a cheerfully inconsequential diversion (and, at a mere 86 minutes, one that hardly outstays its welcome). It’s also a nice change of pace to find a picture shot, quite professionally, in some of the lower-rent districts of Cleveland, the writer-directors’ home turf. Though “Welcome to Collinwood” doesn’t do as much for its Ohio locations as the Coens’ “Fargo” did for their native Minnesota, it’s sufficiently affectionate to prove an agreeable little lark.