One of the most confusing things about A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints — and believe me, there are several — is the story’s complete divorce from its title. Any hints at vague religiosity that might be evoked are smashed when it becomes clear that the film’s central characters couldn’t care less about martyrs or holy men and, except for a brief funeral scene, they never get within 500 yards of a church. It’s even more perplexing when you take into account that the film was written and directed by Dito Montiel, who based it on his memoir of the same name, which on page one recounts a few brief anecdotes of cutting up with his friends in the confessional while growing up in 1970s-era Queens, New York. In fact, the entire concept of the book — that young Dito comes to recognize the various saints in his life, whose dark fate he is spared — is absent from the film, leaving it a lifeless shell of the original text. Montiel has trimmed away all the flourishes that would have set his story apart from the thousands of other coming-of-age tales we’ve seen before, and the resulting film is a wobbly mix of youthful verve and grown-up posturing.
The film begins with adult Dito (Robert Downey Jr.) reading from his book, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, then cuts to young Dito (Shia LaBeouf), who somberly intones while staring into the camera that he will leave everyone in the story. It’s an ambitious beginning, and soon enough Montiel plunges into the world of his adolescence, a dangerous, sweaty time marked by street fights with rival gangs and nights on rooftops with his friends and a couple of local girls, everyone sitting around and drinking and cautiously feeling each other up. Dito runs with Antonio (Channing Tatum), Antonio’s slightly mentally challenged brother, Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo), and Nerf (Peter Anthony Tambakis); they roam the streets, stuck in the sweaty awkward realm between childhood and the real world. They’re old enough for their actions to have consequences, but still too dumb to care. The scenes of young Dito’s delinquent wanderings on the streets of New York are the most enjoyable in that they feel realer than everything else in the movie: Montiel’s heart is clearly married to this transitional time in his life, and the clumsy moments of emotional confusion brim with authenticity. The dialogue comes fast and furious, a hailstorm of expletives and mumbles and half-sentences seven layers deep meant to convey the seeming urgency of adolescence. Dito and Antonio are eternally talking without ever saying anything of substance; in other words, they’re teenagers.
Unfortunately, Montiel cuts away from the slowly progressing story of young Dito to follow Downey’s adult portrayal of Dito as he reluctantly travels back home from California to visit his sick father (Chazz Palminteri), whom he hasn’t spoken to in years. Downey is one of his generation’s finest actors, but as Dito he doesn’t get to do much more than serve as a placeholder. The majority of the film is set in the past, and the scenes set in the present feel like a forced continuation of a story that should have ended already. This is partly because the film’s source material is a sprawling work that spans a couple decades, while the film itself charts a very narrow time period one summer in Dito’s youth and approximately 48 hours of his adulthood; in short, there’s just too much ground to cover.
On top of this, there are a few confusing moments that break the narrative spell by drawing too much attention to the source material itself. When Dito returns home as an adult, his mother (Dianne Wiest) references the book he wrote and how it talked about his youth, a disturbingly meta moment that threw me from the story. The book can’t very well include such moments, since they reference the book itself, which has already been published. Does this mean the film is based on the book and parts of Montiel’s life not recorded in the memoir? If that’s the case, why not just say the film is based on his life, and not the book, with which it seemingly shares nothing more than a title and some characters?
Whatever. It’s not worth troubling over. Montiel returns soon enough to the film’s main narrative, of young Dito’s descent into neighborhood violence and burgeoning will to escape. Dito isn’t much smarter than his friends, but he nevertheless begins to feel more and more like escaping to California, perhaps because it’s the farthest he can think to run. He makes a few bucks walking dogs in Manhattan with Mike (Martin Compston), a Scottish classmate, and he pursues an emotionally abusive relationship with Laurie (Melonie Diaz), who, for reasons passing understanding, finds herself drawn to Dito. Who knows, maybe anybody would look good next to the bound-to-go-to-prison thug that is Antonio, played with all the dull-eyed grit Tatum can muster. Dito’s world eventually goes from crappy to godawful, though, as testosterone-fueled turf wars bring on the inevitable tragedies.
As the film wears on, Montiel tries to shift the focus to the older Dito, robbing the LaBeouf story arc of the energy he’d given it at the outset, in an attempt to funnel it into Downey’s portion of the movie. But it’s too little, too late, and from there the film stumbles lamely on to its ending, which appears out of nowhere and offers only a token sense of resolution.
LaBeouf turns in a solid enough performance, his Dito floating aimlessly through life in a neighborhood where no one ever goes anywhere. Downey does what he can with his limited screen time, while other actors are straight-up wasted, such as Rosario Dawson, who plays the adult Laurie in all of five minutes’ worth of film. Why even bother casting such a name actress for the piddling role? It’s another small but definite sign that Montiel, in adapting his own work and life story for film, is too close to the material to turn it into a good film. A more experienced director with a dispassionate eye might have been able to bring the heart of Montiel’s story into the open, but Montiel’s too busy describing the trees to take notice of the forest. He’s made a film full of potentially intriguing characters, but there’s not a saint among them.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Down and Out in '70s Queens
Film Reviews | September 29, 2006 | Comments ()