More sinful than saintly

Stylish visuals aren't enough to save this grimy memoir

<strong>A Guide to Recognising Your Saints

If there's one thing the world doesn't need, it's another story of intractable fathers and rebellious sons. But it would be unfair to criticise A Guide to Recognising Your Saints merely for setting out its stall in this crowded thematic territory. Especially when the film has so many other shortcomings to choose from.

It's the first feature from Dito Montiel, a former underwear model who adapted the screenplay from his memoir about growing up smart and sensitive in Queens, New York. The main character, Dito Montiel (Robert Downey Jr), is the author of a brilliant memoir about growing up smart and sensitive in Queens, New York. Dito hasn't seen his parents since leaving for California 15 years ago, and now his father (Chazz Palminteri) is ill, and his mother (Dianne Wiest) is begging him to return home.

On the flight over, Dito suffers a severe attack of the flashbacks. Occasionally, and absurdly, these flashbacks are interrupted by shots of the adult Dito wandering around his old neighbourhood - such as when he peers into a shop, mutters to the cashier, "Do you know this used to be a candy store?" and then shuffles off before the woman has a chance to reply, "If you hum it, I'll strum along on the banjo." It's the kind of irrelevant moment rendered delightful only by Downey's eccentric shtick.

Mostly the film is set in 1986, where the boom-boxes are big, the shorts are small and the clichés are plentiful. Teenagers in vests swap backchat on tenement stoops and swig from beer cans wrapped in brown paper bags. Dialogue conforms roughly to the following pattern: "Whatsa madder witchoo?" "Nuttin'. Whatsa madder witchoo?" The teenage Dito (Shia LaBeouf) is busy absorbing everything around him for future inclusion in that brilliant memoir of his. He hangs out with his buddies, including the psychotic Antonio (Channing Tatum), and earns small change helping out a gay dog-walker (Anthony DeSando). He also finds time to get into scrapes with a violent graffiti artist, and to make goo-goo eyes at the sultry Laurie (Melonie Diaz).

A Guide to Recognising Your Saints soon becomes a guide to recognising the pitfalls awaiting a first-time film-maker. Nothing happens for much of the picture. The scenes are like acting assignments: everyone crowds into a room, voices are raised, then everyone leaves. And when something tangible does happen - the death, halfway through, of Antonio's brother - it doesn't reverberate for more than a few seconds. Antonio goes off the rails, but then he was going off the rails anyway; if you removed his brother's death it wouldn't alter the film, except that even less would be happening.

At least there's a nicely eclectic soundtrack. Elton John and Kiki Dee are here alongside the Velvet Underground; someone even gets high to Gerry Rafferty, which I always imagined was physically impossible. And the film looks decent enough. But you come to resent the energy that has been lavished on the visuals at the expense of such small matters as writing plausible relationships, or helping the actors discover the point of their scenes. Montiel has secured the services of a fine cast, but it's hard not to feel embarrassed for Dianne Wiest, who is called upon to deliver a long speech patching up the holes in the screenplay, or for Chazz Palminteri who, unaccountably, has to blow a fuse when Dito wants to go on holiday. "Why do you want to go somewhere?" he fumes. "If you wanna go to China, go to Chinatown." If that's not the stupidest line in the film, it can't be far off.

Most viewers will have blown their own fuse by the time the adult Dito catches up with his old man for an exchange that is somewhat less illuminating than either of them might have hoped. It goes like this: "I'm your son." "You're my son?" "Yeah, I'm your son." "You're my son? You're not my son!" At which point it would have been expedient for someone to dig out Dito's birth certificate and put the matter to rest.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery