By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Essentially a retread of The Freshman (1990) on a much lower budget, In the Soup concerns a young wannabe filmmaker, Adolfo Rollo (Steve Buscemi) who becomes mixed up with a gangster-type, Joe (Seymour Cassell) in the name of financing his first film.
Very little filmmaking occurs, though. What really happens is the old story of the life-loving older guy teaching the high-strung younger fellow a thing or two about living.
Yes, it’s an old story that has been told a thousand times before and since, but Alexandre Rockwell’s little film has a home movie charm and a streetwise wit that make it a must-see sleeper.
The strangest thing about In the Soup was how little attention it earned during its theatrical release in 1992. It was a Sundance baby along with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Allison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging, and it featured a breakout performance by Seymour Cassell that should have had critics falling all over themselves. How Cassell was overlooked for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination is a mystery for the ages.
I hate to admit it, but I assume the movie’s failure has to do with one simple fact: it’s shot in black-and-white. Many black-and-white movies of the last 20 years (Ed Wood, Dead Man) have failed for the same reason. Audiences are not trained to watch what they view as “colorless” film, and because of it they’re missing out on an essential part of film history.
Regardless, it’s as easy to fall under the film’s charms as it was for Adolfo to fall under Joe’s. Adolfo lives in a cruddy building over a liquor store, but next door to a beautiful woman, Angelica (Jennifer Beals, Rockwell’s wife for a while). Barely scraping by, Adolfo finally decides to put his magnum opus, a 500-page script called “Unconditional Surrender,” up for sale. Joe is the only bidder, and right away Adolfo’s life begins to change. The money starts to roll in from various dubious sources, only to be spent just as quickly. Will Adolfo’s film ever get made? Of course the film ends with the usual cliché: Hey! What about the story that we’re living right now? Wouldn’t that make a hell of a picture? But In the Soup is easily forgiven.
Along the way, Rockwell inserts several lovely and funny little set-pieces, including one in which Adolfo allows himself to be interviewed on a show called “The Naked Truth,” produced by a couple of New York hustlers (Jim Jarmusch and Carol Kane). In one of the film’s loveliest scenes, Joe and Adolfo break into a house in the middle of the night. While Joe searches elsewhere, Adolfo listens to the house’s owner, a lonely, confused old man who misses his wife.
Other great New York character actors turn up as well: Debi Mazar as a call girl, Sam Rockwell as Angelica’s mentally-challenged son and Stanley Tucci as her green card husband. The underrated Beals (who started at the top in the hit Flashdance) does a superb Dominican accent, playing a high-class beauty with low-class origins.
Buscemi plays the passive Adolfo with a slow-witted naïveté that sometimes takes you out of the picture, but his soulful eyes and world-weariness make up for it. Ironically, Buscemi played another filmmaker — this time actually directing a movie — in Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion (1995), then made his own directorial debut in 1996 with Trees Lounge.
But it’s Cassavetes veteran Cassell that steals the show and gives the movie its warmth and soul. “You’re one of those budding young things,” he says to his new filmmaker. For a while, we wait for the other shoe to drop, wondering if Joe is just a hustler or if he’ll skip town or suddenly pull out a gun. But this uncertainty only adds to his appeal. Cassell moves beautifully (he dances in one scene) and looks great in a tuxedo, and his good cheer never dies down. Rockwell correctly keeps the character’s ambiguity going until the film’s final frame.