Dir/scr: Michael Imperioli. US. 2009. 105mins.
Assorted New Yorkers seek solace in drink, drugs, sex and talk, talk, talk in The Hungry Ghosts, an ensemble psychodrama that comes across as a quintessential actor’s behind-the-camera debut. The director and writer is Michael Imperioli, best known as Christopher Soprano on TV series The Sopranos, but also a long-standing mainstay of New York cinema, working with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Abel Ferrara. This low-budget drama shows that Imperioli has learned plenty from Scorsese and Ferrara in particular, without quite forging his own identity.
This sometimes unfocused and overwrought labour of love also shows signs of the director’s theatrical bent, emerging as it does from work with his Studio Dante theatre company. Boasting virtuoso performances - at times a little too obviously so - The Hungry Ghosts occupies too familiar terrain, and while Imperioli’s cachet should boost the film’s festival presence, sales prospects seem modest outside distributors firmly committed to American indie product.
Imperioli’s jigsaw narrative takes its time in letting us gauge the connections between its characters. Frank (Schirripa, also a Sopranos regular as Bobby Bacala) is a New York night-time radio host with a drink and cocaine problem, separated from wife Sharon (Angela) and making a poor go of therapy sessions with teenage son Matt (promising newcomer Cohen). Nadia (Ellis) is a sometime yoga teacher on her uppers, who leaves her rented digs to hang around the city, evading phone calls from the man with whom she once had a destructively intense relationship. That man is Gus (Sandow), a philosophically-inclined middle-aged guy newly discharged from a drying-out clinic, and heading for his own moment of truth.
Dramatically hit-and-miss, the film skips with slightly uneven logic between strands stretching over a day, a night and a morning. The affable but troublingly intense Gus befriends first an elderly drunk, then a young spiritual seeker. Matt walks out on a therapy session and goes AWOL before being picked up by a pair of moneyed swingers. Frank, on the verge of a physical and mental meltdown, returns to his radio studio where - in a nicely judged comedic sequence - he trades banter with three eccentric and decidedly Z-list guests. And Nadia has various encounters which, though inconclusive, showcase Aunjanue Ellis as one of the more forceful and controlled performers here.
The film’s title alludes to a Taoist concept, denoting dead people who cannot let go of the living. But the film’s spiritual undertow - based around the yoga/self-discovery centre where Nadia and Gus met - never convinces, and the film strains awkwardly with its flashes of new-age insight, which creak worst when Gus launches into his prolix set pieces.
More often, it’s acting rather than dialogue that keeps the film aloft, with both leads and supporting cameos exuding abrasive energy. Among the leads, the bulky Schiripa in particular is immensely watchable. But dramatically the film is unevenly pitched between, on one hand, a succession of dramatic build-ups to crises that never quite pay off, and on the other, a looser tendency to go with the flow and just let the actors do their thing - a path the film occasionally follows a little too eagerly. The DV camerawork is functional and rough-edged, and at times uncomfortably glary.
TMT Entertainment Group
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Steve R Schirripa