There's no such thing as a romantic setting for a coming-of-age tale: The work of becoming a grown-up is so extraordinarily dismal that it doesn't matter if it's done in an upper-class suburb, a remote country village or a greasy little city distinguished only by row upon row of faceless clapboard houses.
That said, though, filmmakers often have trouble with the lower-middle-class experience of growing up. If there's a token monosyllabic father sitting on a ratty armchair in front of the tube, a can of Schlitz in his hand, they feel they've done their duty to signal the bleakness of working-class family life. It's as if the kid, or kids, in question hardly matter, as long as the all-important class distinction has been drawn in fat marker.
Michael Corrente's wonderful "Outside Providence" -- its script written by Corrente and Bobby and Peter Farrelly (directors of "Dumb & Dumber" and "There's Something About Mary"), from a novel by Peter Farrelly -- is about class, all right. But the movie is remarkable for the way it refuses to treat a lower-middle-class upbringing as a tragedy or as something to apologize for. Its lead character, hapless but good-hearted burnout Timothy Dunphy (Shawn Hatosy), doesn't see his place in the social food chain as a roadblock to overcome: It's simply there, an unremarkable fact. In an early sequence, Corrente shows us Timothy's younger brother, Jackie (Tommy Bone), in a wheelchair delivering papers; he's being pulled by Timothy, who's riding a bike, the two of them zipping past a row of those faceless clapboard houses, their three-legged German shepherd mutt (with an eyepatch, no less) ambling merrily in tow. Wheelchair, dismal dwellings, three-fourths of a dog: Corrente gives us this checklist right up front, so we'll know what we're in for. He wants us to laugh; what isn't welcome is our pity.
"Outside Providence" has a spiritual kinship with Tamara Jenkins' "Slums of Beverly Hills," although it's not nearly as cartoonish as that picture. It recognizes that the class a kid is born into has everything to do with how he or she grows up; it doesn't try to ameliorate class differences in the service of making some pat "Adolescence hurts, no matter how much money you've got" statement. And it does feature a father, played by Alec Baldwin, who slumps in front of the tube in a ratty armchair. But Baldwin's character, as broadly drawn as he is -- the movie is a comedy, after all -- isn't a token. None of the central characters, the rich ones included, have been plunked into the movie just to make a point. Maybe that's what gives "Outside Providence" a kind of richness that goes above and beyond its ostensibly depressing setting. It's funny and offbeat, sometimes raucous, but it still manages to come at you in gentle layers.
The '70s have turned out to be the most popular era covered in the movies lately, but Corrente transports us effortlessly not just into an era that's past, but into a whole way of life for kids of a certain age in a certain kind of town: Early on we see Timothy and his stoner buddies hanging out one night at a local water tower, talking about girls and drugs and not much else, in a way that's eminently not meaningful. You can't even say these kids' lives have a texture: Their days just seem to wash over them, culminating in these evening episodes where recent events are mined feebly as if they might have some potential meaning, or might be some means of effecting change -- but probably not. Change ends up grabbing Timothy by the scruff of the neck: Content enough to go through life getting high and helping his kid brother deliver papers, he gets into deep trouble when (high, of course) he crashes his father's car -- straight into a parked cop cruiser. "Old Man Dunphy" (Baldwin), hoping to straighten his kid out, manages to get him into a swanky prep school -- not realizing, of course, that by removing Timothy from his deadbeat gang, he's really just swapping one group of stoners for another. Timothy quickly finds his crowd at school (turns out the stoners of superior breeding have fashioned a giant bong out of some water tank-type thing), and he even manages to land Jane Weston (Amy Smart), an upper-crusty but marvelously down-to-earth young woman, as his girlfriend.
"Outside Providence" isn't your typical outsider's story.
Timothy's class is barely an issue at Cornwall Academy (and
no, it doesn't take long for some waggish youth to make the
inevitable "cornhole" joke); actually, his bad grades and
incessant partying mean that he fits right in. But there's
still plenty for him to figure out. He needs to outwit a
devious school house-master, Mr. Funderburk (Tim Crowe); his
mother died when he was small, and his father talks about
her so rarely that he doesn't understand the circumstances
surrounding her death; and, embarrassed by having to wear a
clip-on tie at school, he wants to learn how to tie a real
In its weird, winding way, "Outside Providence" gives each
of those trials almost equal weight. Corrente's
sure-footed direction, and the fact that his ensemble of
actors uniformly know what they're doing, makes almost all of
the movie's strange choices work. Hatosy, with his
snaggle-tooth smile and droopy posture, is perfect as the
kind of kid who's really only half a loser. He has no idea
how to get by in the world, but because he has no idea that
he has no idea, he jumps in anyway, undaunted. When he finds
himself in the back seat of Jane Weston's rich-girl car --
her parents, starched and proper, are riding in the front --
there's a schoolboyish generosity in the way he hands her
the Coke he's just bought for her. And the wicked half-smile
of delight that creeps across Jane's face when she takes her
first sip (Timothy has spiked both drinks) is just the first
glimmer of Amy Smart's appeal as an actress. She ends up
giving a completely charming and natural performance,
knowing exactly how to show that a blond, beautiful,
privileged co-ed can also be just really neat.
Baldwin's character, on the other hand, is part
caricature. His working-class stubble and working-class
accent are textbook. Even so, Baldwin digs beyond the
obvious trappings of the role. You can see the sparkle of
affection, and even pride, in his eyes when he tells his
younger son, who's just made a clever joke, to "shut up, you
little hard-on." Baldwin, Corrente and the Farrellys
understand intuitively that in families, it's not
necessarily the words spoken that make up the real language.
Baldwin taps his comic resources beautifully here, showing
the kind of freewheeling ease that's always been apparent in
his hilarious "Saturday Night Live" appearances. He's been
almost uniformly stiff in his dramatic roles, but he's never
been better than he is here, particularly in the scene where
he shows Timothy how to knot his tie, outlining the process
in a voice whose gruffness has given way to a kind of terse
tenderness. The obvious connotation -- that he's initiating
his son into adulthood -- isn't the point here. What's
touching about the scene is that he's initiating Timothy
into the league of gentlemen -- the unspoken but
loud-and-clear subtext being that gentlemanliness can
coexist with sloppy grammar and frayed shirt sleeves.
Although "Outside Providence" isn't a Farrelly Brothers
vehicle in the strictest sense, it has their stamp all over
it. (Peter Farrelly's novel, upon which the script was
based, is semi-autobiographical.) "Dumb & Dumber," often
waved about by smug would-be intellectuals as an example of
lowest-common-denominator humor, isn't just hysterically
funny. Underlying all those sublimely ridiculous jokes is an
understanding of what it's like to live in a small crap town
-- and an acknowledgment that it isn't necessarily as bad as
it seems. When Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey head out of
Providence on I-95 in their hideous van, they pass a bunch
of landmarks familiar to anyone who's ever had to drive that
grim stretch of road, most notably a pest-control company
with a giant purple bug perched on its roof. The Farrellys
are perfectly aware of how dismal the territory is, but they
show it with unbridled delight, a fairy tale highway dotted
with smokestacks and nudie bars. To their characters, that
patch of I-95, ugly as it is, represents the lure of the
open road. Context, as the Farrellys know, is everything,
and that's at least part of what makes "Outside Providence"
The movie does misstep occasionally. One sequence, in which
Timothy explains in voice-over that he never wanted his
little brother to feel sorry for himself because he's in a
wheelchair, only reiterates in words what we've already been
shown so well. But "Outside Providence" never lost
me, from the minute I saw those kids hanging around
listlessly at the water tower. The movie could easily mine
nostalgia for its own sake, with its Badfinger songs and its
bad haircuts, but it goes much further. It explains how you
can take the boy out of the town -- but you can never, ever
take the town out of the boy.