'Mac' pays homage to a father whose love of labor caused many losses

March 19, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Surely only John Turturro the director would photograph John Turturro the actor sitting on the toilet with his pants down, smoking. And only the same director would photograph the same actor pulling on his truss and saying, "This damned hernia is killing me."

Clearly in "Mac" we are in a world far from Hollywood. We're in the Queens of the early '50s, where a generation of men returning from the war set about a new task: the building of America. These guys were workers and "Mac" is quite a rare thing, a celebration of the American work ethic. It's about getting up at 5 a.m. and working until 6 p.m. day after day after day after day.

The movie is an homage and biography of Turturro's own father, though its strongest element is that it understands the corrosive effects of obsession with labor as well. Though an act of love, it's also an act of truth -- clearly the point of the toilet scene.

Thinly fictionalized as Mac Vitelli in the film, Turturro's father was the eldest of three brothers who worked construction in the boom years of the post-war era. After working for others for nearly a decade, they decided to become "builders" themselves, gambling family savings on a parcel of land and trying to construct the four best houses in America.

I can't remember a movie that so celebrated the physics and the disciplines of labor. With the Vitelli boys, we pound the nails -- they sink into the wood effortlessly -- and take the carpenter's pleasure in framing a structure of elegance and grace, each strut unobtrusive but a part of a whole. With the Vitelli boys, we admire the bricklayer's lyricism, the way he brings an illusion of perfect order and neatness to an untidy world with the deft strokes of his blade as row on row a wall and then a house rises.

At the same time, behind the artistry must be drive, and that's what Mac has in spades. He's the first one up; he blasts into his brothers' bedroom before the crack of dawn to yell them from bed like an Army drill instructor; long past midnight, in his undershirt, he works the arithmetic and bookkeeping of the project, and even when his wife (Katherine Borowitz) comes in to suggest they might want to make love once in a while, he's muttering "Seven times five is 35, carry the three . . ."

Yet like a first-generation revolutionary, Mac is doomed by the very process he has unleashed. Uplifted with the vision, he's also crushed with the responsibility; he sinks so far into his work there's no other life available; possessed, at the same time, of ego and courage and a combative nature, he's quick to anger, slow to simmer and a fast man with his fists. He'll fight anybody, anywhere; slowly and surely, he becomes a monster, until he drives them all away. Even then, he doesn't realize what he's done. He has no perspective.

As director and co-screenwriter, Turturro is trying to keep the material "realistic," rather than hyper or stylized. Generally, he stays away from pyrotechnics and works in a conservative, understated style. The work is never dramatized and no "plot" has been imposed upon the materials; the scenes and the story simply accumulate weight and momentum as the piece builds.

Generally, this works well, but a couple of times, Turturro's instincts betray him. One tic he can't stay away from is the cute business of the tonal reversal: A scene begins with a dramatic close-up -- an ax shattering car window, or a nervous young man being coached by ominous elders -- and then it's revealed that the circumstances are benign rather than menacing. This grows thin.

Then there's Ellen Barkin in a drab poster-board role as a '50s boho siren who lures the two younger brothers away from the harsh discipline of work to the possibilities of a more cosmopolitan lifestyle. Thin stuff also.

But generally, "Mac" is gritty and authentic. Turturro the actor never fails Turturro the director just as, one senses behind the scenes, his own father may have driven his brothers away but he never drove his son away. In fact the movie ends on a cute touch: an actual answering machine message of his dad calling John.

"Mac"

Starring John Turturro and Katherine Borowitz.

Directed by John Turturro.

Released by Goldwyn.

Rated R.

***

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