James Gandolfini left the world too soon.
Dying in your 50’s of a heart attack may reflect a less-than-stellar lifestyle, but it also states a life was lived well and to the fullest. As I’ve written on at least four different websites over the years, the only good thing about losing an actor too early is that they left us all their stuff to keep watching and finding over the years.
Everyone knows Gandolfini by one significant role: Tony Soprano on HBO’s iconic “The Sopranos.” But way before he got the role of a lifetime on that gem of a series created by David Chase, he was a supreme character actor. In other words, one of the best at climbing inside a smaller supporting role and carving out a niche for the audience to love or hate in quick fashion. He was a chameleon, but largely stuck to looming antagonistic roles that played like early shades of Soprano. The henchman in Tony Scott’s “True Romance,” the one Patricia Arquette blows away with a shotgun. The tough guy behind Gene Hackman in “Crimson Tide.” He was an established and respected actor BEFORE he got the big job.
Which makes finding indie gems like “Down the Shore” on Amazon Prime Video all the better. A movie that Gandolfini made shortly after the conclusion of Chase’s series, showing off the more tender side of his persona that he embraced with Julie Louis-Dreyfus in the sweet yet honest “Enough Said.”
Here, he plays a carnival ride repairman and operator, an older man seeing his life dwindle in a small Jersey Shore-located town. Seeing Gandolfini, a New Jersey native, slip into the skin of Bailey, that sad soul who watched his childhood sweetheart (Famke Janssen, melting the screen per usual with her stare alone) marry his best friend (John Pope), a rich kid who came from nothing, yet paid the price with drug addiction. Three childhood friends who find themselves on a collision course inside this moody and slow-moving but heartfelt 93-minute film.
Directed by Harold Guskin (also a full-time acting coach with Gandolfini among his clientele at the time), this is one of those very lived-in independent dramas that rides close to the rail of overwrought drama, but eventually gets back on the road to a good time and relatively easy watch. Please don’t expect a thriller. This is clearly a drama, one that intertwines old town secrets, family tragedy, and unlikely friends well enough to hold even the most fleeting attention span.
It was great watching Gandolfini in something I haven’t seen before, almost like a new movie just dropped on my streaming doorstep. I clicked “play” based on the actor alone. I knew he’d make it work, bringing equity to the time spent. He invests so much unsaid beauty and torture into Bailey a man desperate for connection and answers while trying to stay afloat. This kind of role makes me sad that he is gone, but happy that I got to experience the talent live and on the fly for quite some time.
Bailey is a man with sweetness and tenacity in his blood, which was always a signature Gandolfini trait to me. Guskin’s film is one where the lead actor took something that could have been mundane, and turned it into a fine wine. He was gifted and respected equally, and those are the ones who always leave this rock too soon.
“Down the Shore” doesn’t end with a big shootout. The only guns used in this film are water pistols. The only fight scene is a messy one between two grown men who don’t like fighting. The only real sex-related moment is a good kiss or two. There is profanity and some drug use, but the morals of the tale make those small hurdles to get over in the cinema world.
The final two minutes sealed the deal for me. Honestly, I was muttering to myself that this one missed the boat until a final coda was attached, something that made the entire film settle into place-like tugging that peg into place after a brief struggle. Sometimes, being patient is good for film and sports consumers.
Here’s another Gandolfini gem to pursue: “The Drop” with Tom Hardy. But that’s a review (or revisit) for another day.
Photo Credit: Anchor Bay Entertainment