WHO KNEW THAT the humble subway maintenance industry was so full of dangerous intrigue and corruption? According to James Gray's The Yards, New York's rickety municipal subway system is actually controlled by a small group of Mafiosi-like men who woo beautiful, oblivious women while ordering hits as easily as a pizza. Backed by a ragtag group of thugs, tough but benevolent family patriarch Frank (James Caan) buys his way into this oligarchy, fattening the bank accounts of city officials and police chiefs along the way.
directed by James Gray with Mark Wahlberg, James Caan, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron, Faye Dunaway, and Ellen Burstyn opens October 27 at Meridian and Varsity
In its emphasis on crime and kin, The Yards seems like a possible update on The Godfather and a fitting star vehicle for the prunish Caan (who's been making something of a comeback recently with Mickey Blue Eyes and The Way of the Gun), yet it doesn't even translate to a half-interesting film. With torpid pacing, slim characterization, and uninventive visuals, The Yards is one of this year's dullest movies. It's too bad because the talented cast deserves better: Caan is complimented by Faye Dunaway as his wife and Ellen Burstyn as his sister-in-law. In the younger generation, we have former convict, rapper, and underwear model Mark Wahlberg; sexy and sinister Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator); and luscious, Angelina Jolie look-alike Charlize Theron (The Cider House Rules), who sports a cute black pixie haircut.
Wahlberg plays a former car thief, Leo, who's trying to go straight; his mother (Burstyn) gets him a job with Uncle Frank, which we know will invariably put him into conflict with the law. Given such a predictable, tediously told story, one is left to appreciate the authentic, gritty details of The Yards, one of several current films set in outer-borough, working-class New York. (Others include Two Family House, Girlfight, and the forthcoming Requiem for a Dream.) All these films realistically capture in small touches that large, grindingly unglamorous slice of the Big Apple outside Manhattan. Accordingly, Leo and his mom live in a tiny walk-up with cheap linoleum tile flooring; the knickknacks inside recall Archie Bunker more than those upscale Friends. Mother and son get a glimpse of the good life when visiting Frank, who lives in a large house in what looks to be Westchester, Hillary Clinton country. There, Frank's pawns wear gold crosses around their necks and have grandiloquent names like Dante.
Understated performances suit this seedy milieu. Wahlberg's characteristic restraint is well used in Leo, whose speech is reserved and blunt. He's a typical quiet but strong character, who ultimately resorts to a big stick in one crucial scene. Leo begins and ends the movie by saying that all he wants is to be a productive citizen—an admirable sentiment, but unfortunately, that's much less than what we want out of a good story.