Ohio Players

Cleveland brothers Joe and Anthony Russo plot a zany scam in Welcome to Collinwood.

The gang scopes out its Bellini.
The gang scopes out its Bellini.
Honestly, I've never been much into schmaltzy movies about the old neighborhood. The whole scene seems pretty hellish: all that cutesy talk about this good old street or that once-hoppin' nightclub. Therefore, when it's announced that there's a movie called Welcome to Collinwood, about a bunch of Hollywood actors playing shticky "old neighborhood" characters, I'm ready to balk and walk. Then comes the pleasant surprise: It's excessively quirky and a little underconfident in its delivery, but otherwise this is the best "old neighborhood" project since Christopher Walken kinda romanced Cyndi Lauper in The Opportunists, and that movie, though no classic, was pretty good. The two films also have a heist in common, but rest assured that this is no tedious Heist: The bullshit dialogue is intentionally bullshitty, and all involved greet their job -- their "Bellini," as they call it in East Cleveland parlance -- with wit and sass, not just latter-day Mamet's whiffs of lukewarm gas.

The most dramatically powerful elements in this movie are probably William H. Macy's sideburns -- they'll give you nightmares -- but the story starts off not with his charmingly glum, struggling new father, Riley, but a very clumsy con named Cosimo (Luis Guzmán, a familiar and unforgettable face from the recent films of Paul Thomas Anderson and Collinwood producer Steven Soderbergh). While Cosimo's in the clink for car theft, an old lifer tells him of a perfect crime -- the aforementioned Bellini -- just waiting to be hatched. It involves an old jeweler, a safe full of dough, and a couple of old biddies in the apartment next door. But first (and this is the end of the weird vocabulary -- well, the movie's, anyway) Cosimo must find a "Mullinski," someone to 'fess up and serve his time for a few grand, while he makes good on the lifer's long-incubated plot.

The setup is as good as any, although as with many a setup, it's here almost exclusively so that we can hang out with a motley lot of characters striving to eclipse one another with wacky tics. In this case, amazingly, it's all good. Cosimo's moll Rosalind (Patricia Clarkson) finds Cosimo a fall guy in the truly terrible amateur boxer Pero (Sam Rockwell), but Pero exhibits a skill for social manipulation, and soon he and his gang are roaming free with the Bellini plan. There's Toto (the splendid Michael Jeter), who seems incapable of keeping his pants up, let alone following through on a robbery. And there's hair-trigger Leon (Isaiah Washington), goofball ladies' man Basil (Andrew Davoli), and poor Riley, who just wants to find a thousand bucks to get his wife out of jail. No sure thing, this.

Collinwood is full of surprise twists and some of the most outrageous free-form dialogue the cinema's heard in a while ("I will shit in you!" a disagreeable cop shouts into Pero's face). But what's much stranger is that this baby delivered by Soderbergh is actually much more fun than his stiff, largely joyless remake of Ocean's 11. Loitering in the Rust Belt does the creative glands good, after all, for Cleveland-born co-writers-directors Anthony and Joe Russo present in their fine debut feature a loose, engaging, and seemingly effortless good time.

Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh plays as much a role in this heist as any of the actors, by laying down a score of delightful intricacy and mixed-up ethnicity. It's hard to believe that this is the guy behind "Whip It" when the mandolins and bouzoukis keep kicking in. At first the effect is jarring -- with every scene comes a radically different chunk of "world music," as if someone put the Real World catalog on shuffle -- but soon enough, the effect feels like the scatteredness of America's uncertain and ever-shifting cities. Mothersbaugh's work is terrific, and it perfectly complements the Russos' affinity for funky street life.

Not everything in Collinwood makes sense, and often motivations are hazy at best, but this is not a tidy, sterile package; it's an actor's movie. As Pero's mark and sort-of girlfriend, Jennifer Esposito is at her best yet. There's also much crackle in the exchanges between the feisty would-be crooks, and patent freakishness when they encounter the wheelchair-bound veteran safecracker Jerzy, played by George Clooney. It's tempting to chide Clooney for being ridiculous (two words: rabbi disguise), but his clowning only serves to emphasize the humanity of the other criminals, no matter how silly they may seem. Fittingly, everyone involved is right on the money.