'Amongst Friends' puts a sharper edge on familiar mean streets

MOVIES

August 13, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Amongst Friends"

Starring Joseph Lindsey, Steve Parlavecchio and Patrick McGaw

@Directed by Rob Weiss

Released by Fineline

Rated R

***

For young filmmakers, crime has always paid. Twenty-five or so years back, Martin Scorsese got his career off with a bangbangbang in "Mean Streets," a vigorous, acidly ironic examination of young wannabe gangsters on the streets of New York's Little Italy. It was possibly the most influential film of the post-Vietnam epoch. Each year, someone makes it agin.

Last year it was Nick Gomez's "Laws of Gravity"; this year it's 26-year-old Rob Weiss' "Amongst Friends." Though "Amongst" would not exist without Scorsese's career already solidly in place, it's a movie that's nevertheless full of surprises and vivid material, so much so that it soon transcends its source.

The novelty is that by now, crime has spread from Scorsese's corrosive inner city to the very burbs themselves. The mean streets aren't strewn with broken glass but discarded Yoplait lids. The locale is Long Island, a locus of communities known in the colloquial as "the five towns," where the grass is green and trimmed and the houses immaculate and spacious. This is something of a first: rich-kid criminals.

Why do Billy, Andy and Trevor turn bad? They have it all, beautiful homes, doting parents, a world of possibilities before them. Maybe that's why, itself. In any event, drawn into the drug culture that attends most prosperous high schools, they alone never really leave; instead of heading off to college, they drift deeper into the heart of lawlessness, always in search of the "action," the big score, the connection with the big boys who drive the Cadillacs. (Jewish, they moonily dream of the Italian Mafia as other young men dream of the NFL.)

Or maybe it's a generational thing. They are the sons of dentists and lawyers but the grandsons of bookies and mobsters, and they look not to their parents but their card-playing, tough-talking, shrewd-as-hell grandpops as inspiration. In fact, one of the cardinal pleasures of "Amongst Friends" is the pleasure Weiss takes in respecting his elders.

The title, of course, is ironic, a play on the old saw, "With friends like these, who needs enemies?" The story begins, in an arty ersatz home movie that simultaneously evokes the past and the crude energy of boyhood, by niftily dramatizing the intense loyalties of the triumvirate. That bond seems inviolate; in 88 fast minutes, we learn that it will not be. In fact, two will be dead.

It's the same old story. Billy (Joseph Lindsey) is the smartest, the weasel, the hustler, the conniver, always playing the angles. Poor Trevor (Patrick McGaw) is the sweet saint of the bunch, who uncomplainingly takes the rap for Billy (in whose stead he was making a drug pickup) and goes away for three years. Halfway between them is Andy (Steve Parlavecchio), who's not as smart as Billy and not as noble as Trevor but our narrator into these sordid events.

Plot "Amongst Friends" has got, a lot of plot. In fact, it's amazing how much actually happens in the movie's brief running time. But it never feels rushed or fake; and Weiss has a dead-on eye for truly spoken dialogue. He loves to study faces too: he'll let the camera linger on old Jack Trattner, repository of the world's woe ("When we were young, we had respect," Jack is always saying) for hours, never letting us forget that behind Jack's sentimentalism there's an old killer.

Billy quickly becomes a major player in the five towns when Trevor goes down. Like all true friends, he quickly turns abusive to poor Andy, who is not quite so quick a study nor so remorseless a plotter. Thus when Trevor finally gets out of prison, the bitter Andy is looking for a big score to get himself into the majors; he plans and, with Trevor's help, executes the robbery of Jack Trattner's nightclub. Big mistake. Jack (David Stepkin) and his very cool No. 1 guy Michael (Michael Artura) quickly round up the kids and make them agree to work off the insult in trade.

But this gesture of humanity -- Jack could have had them shot -- has its own network of consequences. Michael grows quickly jealous of Jack's affection for young Andy; at the same time, Billy is irked when his girlfriend Laura (Mira Sorvino) returns to Trevor; soon Michael and Billy are plotting against Andy and Trevor, who still think everybody's chums.

What you're amongst in "Amongst Friends" is deceit and betrayal; the greed of easy money, the adrenalin high of pulling off "a job," the attraction of a flashy car and membership in an elite underground culture soon overwhelm the young men; they begin to feed upon themselves.

Weiss' debut film is brilliantly realized within its narrow and admittedly unoriginal framework. He's a director to watch.

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