Twenty Bucks (1993)

Glenn Michael McDonald

Reflecting its long gestation period, Twenty Bucks seems ageless, its photography and art direction creating an ambiguous timestamp.

Twenty Bucks

Director: Keva Rosenfeld
Cast: Brendan Frasier, Elizabeth Shue, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy, Christopher Lloyd
Distributor: Columbia Tri-Star
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Triton
First date: 1993
US DVD Release Date: 2005-07-05
Amazon affiliate

As a kid, I wondered about the history and eventual fate of my allowance money. I'm talking about the actual currency -- the $1 or $5 bills Dad would mock-grudgingly hand over every Friday. Paper money of my own was still novel then, and I liked the idea that hundreds, probably thousands of other people from across the country, had handled these same bills.

Twenty Bucks, a 1993 indie film newly released to DVD, takes this idea and runs with it. Set in Minneapolis, Minnesota, it connects multiple stories by way of a single $20 bill, passed from hand to hand over several days. With this framing device, the film works more like a short story collection than a straight-ahead narrative -- think Slacker, Magnolia or Robert Altman's large-ensemble surveys -- as the bill lands in a police evidence room, a dead man's wallet, a stripper's g-string, and, eventually, inside a fish. This "anthology approach" suggests an interest in lateral thinking and movement. Twenty Bucks takes this idea a step further by overlapping the stories, creating a sense of serendipity or maybe fate.

Sadly, Twenty Bucks was lost in another sort of drift, when it was unable to find decent distribution after wowing the cinerati and getting nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. "It didn't fit onto any category," Rosenfeld says in the DVD commentary. "It was sort of in between the cracks. That was good for me, in that it's what I wanted to do. But it's not necessarily good for the distributor, because it's so much easier to sell a type, a genre."

That's a shame, because this is a cool little movie with an improbably sterling cast. The DVD's making-of featurettes disclose some reasons for this, including its odd pedigree: the original script was actually written in 1935 by Endre Bohem. His son Leslie found it laying around, spun it through several more drafts, and got it produced with the help of Karen Murphy (This is Spinal Tap, David Byrne's True Stories). Bohem explains that his father worked during the old studio system, when studios kept stables of actors under contract, and anthology scripts provided numerous, relatively meaty parts.

In the early 1990s, Twenty Bucks updated this model in the free-agent era. Because the script had so many good parts, it attracted many of the day's best talent. Just check out the roll call: Brendan Fraser, Elizabeth Shue, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy, Christopher Lloyd, Linda Hunt, Spaulding Gray, a pre-Friends David Schwimmer, and a lengthy cameo by Ms. Gladys Knight (no Pips, though). The cast alone makes the movie thoroughly watchable.

The stories themselves are hit-and-miss, as is the case with many an anthology. The best passages are marvels of economy, such as the story of the stripper (Melora Walters) who moonlights as a funeral home director. Other sections feel too obviously assembled: the rich matron who rolls the $20 to snort coke comes onscreen right after the homeless family who spends it on bulk food. This kind of conspicuous commentary breaks the spell, and the tonal shifts occasionally suggest a screenplay-by-committee. (Bohem says the script went through 17 drafts.)

By far the most compelling story stars Christopher Lloyd and Steve Buscemi as odd-couple armed robbers. Buscemi plays a usual type for him, nervous and greasy, and meets a fate that long-time observers of Buscemi characters will find familiar. (He complains about this, hilariously, in the commentary track: "I can't let my Mom watch any of my movies, she gets too upset.") Lloyd, on the other hand, goes against the grain with a scary-good performance as a cool, calm gentleman thief.

Reflecting its long gestation period, Twenty Bucks seems ageless, its photography and art direction creating an ambiguous timestamp. Exterior shots in Minneapolis feature old downtown buildings and locations, while the interiors (shot mostly in L.A.) are more contemporary. But there are no conspicuous fashions, no product placements or brand names to orient us. One early scene in a coffee shop brings several characters together from separate storylines. The color palette and set decoration produce a muted, out-of-the-timestream atmosphere. This could be a hipster coffee joint in 1993 or a train station diner circa 1940.

None of the separate tales is as interesting as the overlaps and juxtapositions between them, conveying a sense of interrelated events happening in different places at the same time. Jung called it "synchronicity," and it's something akin to the Buddhist idea of codependent origination. The gist is: we're all connected by invisible strings, and when weird shit happens, we call it coincidence. But move laterally, and maybe you'll catch a glimpse of something else at work.

The history of American independent film is littered with critically praised projects that slip through the cracks of the Hollywood distribution system. Twenty Bucks is one such film, and an encouraging example of how DVDs allow for the excavation of forgotten gems.






The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.