What do you get when you combine Once Upon A Time in America, Goodfellas, Atlantic City, and add humor? You end up with The Crew, a twisted comedy that makes fun of old age, criticizes the way old age is devalued in pop culture, glories in mobster mythologies, and provides solid laughs throughout, by chronicling the adventures of a bunch of washed-up, wisecracking wise guys.
Like Once Upon A Time in America, The Crew stresses the camaraderie experienced by gang members. As in many gangster movies, the crew members’ sense of themselves is based on the feeling of belonging and power that comes from being part of a select group; they stick together and live by a special code. But here, the characters make it to old age and find that the gang isn’t the only thing in life worth living for. They share many of the problems that Burt Lancaster deals with in Atlantic City as a washed-up hoodlum, missing the respect and pizzazzy lives they once had as criminals. But The Crew is a comedy: it deals with some complex questions such as what it means to grow old in the U.S. or the how community might affect that process lightly, only slipping in serious observations on the side.
The film begins in New Jersey in 1968, with a voiceover by the brains in the group, Bobby (Richard Dreyfuss), looking back on four young mobsters as they prepare to hijack a truck. In addition to Bobby, the crew in its older incarnation consists of three other Jersey boys: Burt Reynolds as The Bat, known for his violent temper; Dan Hedaya (Blood Simple) as the dense but loyal Brick; and longtime John Cassavetes collaborator Seymour Cassell as The Mouth, so called because he rarely talks. At first, Bobby’s voiceover lays out the guys’ names, nicknames, and criminal talents (arson, extortion, murder), and later it helps you to keep track of the convoluted events involving the crew and many other characters an old man with Alzheimers; two feuding cops Olivia (Carrie Ann Moss, from The Matrix) and Steve (Jeremy Piven); Ferris (Jennifer Tilly), a stripper with murder on her mind; and an evil drug lord, Raul Ventana (Miguel Sandoval).
All of this is set up by the opening scene, which establishes the group’s priorities and idiosyncrasies. They drive to “work” in a glamorous convertible Cadillac, red and resplendent with enormous fins; they’re dressed to kill in swanky suits, complete with cool shades. They revel in their badness and in their tightness as a crew. They also mean business, indicated by their ruthless beating of the hapless truck driver.
After providing this glimpse of their long history together, the movie cuts to the present day in Miami’s South Beach, where the crew has now retired. Predictably, they’re bored with their piddly little straight jobs and they miss the excitement of their former lives. Their sex lives have dried up and women ignore them. The other old folks in the Raj Mahal Hotel are dropping like flies and younger, glamorous tenants are moving in before the bodies get cold. So while at this point in the film old age doesn’t seem to be something to look forward to, youth isn’t looking any better. The young people in the film are depicted as shallow and vain, self-absorbed to an extreme. This raises a question: just whom are we expected to sympathize with here? Are the main characters ruthless killers or harmless old men, beset by greedy “kids”? If the movie only celebrated the lives of gangsters, the humor would be macabre and the guys’ sense of community perverted. The film resolves this question by revealing that, though they discover that they still have “it,” they come up short on one crucial skill: they find they are unable to “whack” anyone. And this handicap is what makes The Crew a positive story of reawakening.
The men find themselves coming back to life in an effort to save their home. The Raj Mahal is right on the beach and in high demand by the incoming rich set who have their eyes on those ocean front views. The crew receives an ultimatum from their landlord pay double rent or get out. They decide that they won’t be driven off, but they don’t have any money to pay the monthly increase. (If only the mob had a retirement plan!) So, they devise a plan to make the building unattractive. The plan succeeds, but like all good plans, it has unforeseen consequences. Or as Bobby puts it, “We were wise guys. Wise guys always mess everything up.”
I was expecting mishaps and zany adventures, but after seeing the trailer highlighting Burt Reynolds’ Burger King flunkie gag “Special orders do upset us” I was afraid the film would suffer from “great trailer-itis,” that is, the trailer giving up the only great joke. Instead, the comedy is consistent throughout the movie, and it is often very funny. When we see the crew driving for the first time in Miami, they roll in the same car they had in the first scene in New Jersey, now thirty years old and beat to shit. And later, when the members of the crew are moving on to new relationships, the Bat describes his own lacking “love” life to the Brick, and wryly notes, “A fortune teller told me that the love of my life would have dark curly hair I just didn’t know it would be on your knuckles.”
I was concerned that The Crew might follow in the steps of films such as There’s Something About Mary or Me, Myself & Irene (making jokes at the expense of their offbeat protagonists), or worse, Analyze This or Mickey Blue Eyes, “mob comedies” reductively premised on clashing cultures. Here there are so many clashes Jewish and Italian, Italian and Hispanic, young and old, male and female, criminal and cop and so many shticks, that the ridiculousness and reductiveness are the point. Frankly, I didn’t want to see old folks mocked even if they are mobsters. But while old age is the source of many jokes in The Crew, the humor is based on putting old people down. For example, when Burt runs off a young couple wondering if anyone in the building has died recently, he threatens to crush the young man’s balls, looking mean and scary while doing so. The punchline comes when, after he pulls off the intimidation, the next shot shows that he has to lie down and rest. It’s funny to see the tough guy revealing a weakness to his friends and gratifying to see how they all support him, despite and because of it.
And this is really what the film achieves most effectively, depicting the crew as friends no matter what. When they have a chance to relive their glory days, wining and dining women with a sudden windfall, Bobby notes that they need to make a few more pits stops than they did before, and the shot of them racing along in their new car cuts to them peeing, all in a line, on the side of the road. If peeing isn’t part of the tough guy image, they realize that such physical changes needn’t affect their affections for each other, retired stone killers all. Heartwarming, yes, but also ridiculous.