Wearing your art on your sleeve can be a dangerous business. Director Uli Edel’s film version of Hubert Selby Jr.’s 1964 cult novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn, is shamelessly eager to pummel its audience with profundity. Edel (Christiane F.) and coproducers Bernd Eichinger and Herman Weigel say they have wanted to adapt Selby’s brutal classic since they graduated from film school in Munich in the late Sixties. They were drawn to Selby’s vision of Red Hook, on the Brooklyn waterfront, circa 1952, as an island of lost souls – thugs, hookers, cons, druggies, drag queens and dock workers – trapped in “a loveless world.”
Selby’s raw landscape, poetic language and biblical allusions must have appealed to the academic in these filmmakers. The movie is a cinematic term paper, a piece of German expressionism that makes Fritz Lang’s M look as lively as a Ninja Turtles cartoon. From Stefan Czapsky’s desaturated color photography to Mark Knopfler’s ominous score, the film spares none of its $17 million budget to get the best in bleak.
Though Exit is often bold and imaginative, it is also curiously lifeless. The screenplay, by Desmond Nakano (Boulevard Nights), which combines the novel’s six separate stories, never adds up to a coherent whole. The actors must fight to cut through the oppressive atmosphere. Some do: Stephen Lang of the Broadway play A Few Good Men gets at the tragic confusion of Harry Black, a union strike overseer trying to hide his homosexuality in a bitter marriage. Alexis Arquette, Rosanna’s brother, creates an affecting portrait of Georgette, a transvestite whose longing for the brutal Vinnie (Peter Dobson) leads to disaster. And Jennifer Jason Leigh is spectacular, wounded and wounding as Tralala, a prostitute cut off from all emotion since childhood.
Gangbanged in a vacant lot, Tralala is Selby’s most pitiless vision of hell. The film includes the assault but adds a false note of hope that cheapens the film and betrays Selby’s intention. Ditto the rowdy family scenes for a factory worker named Big Joe (Burt Young), a character not in the book These moments are meant to relieve tension. They also relieve this schizophrenic film of purpose and point.