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Cleveland Heist 

Welcome to Collinwood (R)
Warner Bros.

In my utopian future all made-for-TV movies would have to be as good as Welcome to Collinwood. Based on the 1958 Italian heist film Big Deal on Madonna Street, this comedic caper gets a leg over the hurdle of mediocrity and then just stays there.

While we do know that Collinwood is a bombed-out appendage of post-industrial Cleveland, the period is never explicitly mentioned. Based on the cars and clothes, however, one could surmise it to be the mid- to late-1960s, just as the white ethnic working class began breaking to suburbia. The story begins around the rumors of a "Bellini" which is criminal parlance for "a job," which, in turn, is criminal parlance for "a good opportunity to steal a large sum of money."

The Bellini is leaked from prison by a lifer to area criminal Cosimo (Luis Guzman) who enjoys informing his enemies that their mothers are prostitutes. As news of the precious Bellini is leaked from one sub-proletarian ne'er-do-well to the next, we're introduced to the dream team of crooks: William H. Macy complete with mutton chops, a wife in the slammer, and his baby son strapped to his chest; the geriatric and inexplicably pantless Toto (Michael Jeter); the well-dressed and level-headed Leon (Isaiah Washington) and the largely unremarkable Basil (Andrew Davoli).

The leader of this gang that can't shoot straight -- or steal straight -- is Pero (Sam Rockwell), a failed boxer who delivers Pattonesque sermons to his band of fledgling incompetents, while falling for the film's female lead Carmela (Jennifer Esposito). Carmela dates a sampling of local men and conveniently works as a maid in the building where the Bellini -- a safe that's alleged to contain $300,000 -- is stored.

By way of cameos, we're treated to the wheelchair-bound and prolifically tattooed George Clooney, to whom the gang forks over $500 for a safecracking tutorial. This turns out to be little more than an endorsement for a drill.

As the big night arrives so do many complications. Directing team Anthony and Joe Russo do a wonderful job with the slapstick and the dialogue, which turns savagely acrimonious as the Bellini dream turns into a catastrophe.

Heist stories are mostly a safe bet. Like war films, they force interaction between disparate individuals in a context in which there's little margin for error. Collinwood falls short in its capacity to make us care much about any of these crooks -- though William Macy's eyes alone contain enough pathos for several movies.

There's a consolation prize to Collinwood: the heist team smoldering in the ashes of their own stupidity, which they can't quite manage to confront. A moment of altruism in William Macy's direction allows a brief and honest glimpse of male behavior: kindness met with a deeply uncomfortable gratitude.

Comedies can either meet our emotions halfway -- like the best of Billy Wilder -- or go over the top via Monty Python, Austin Powers and the like. Films that get stuck in the middle become problematic. Collinwood nearly makes it, but like the Bellini, it never quite pays out.

-- John Dicker

P.S. Looking for a good DVD rental? May I recommend the Grand Poobah of all heist films: Rififi by blacklisted director Jules Dassin.

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