Southie (1998)

When you return home after disappearing for three years, you hope that the rest of your family has held it together. This isn’t the case for Danny Quinn (Donnie Wahlberg), who left a long time ago but returned for some reason. He claims it’s for a friend’s wedding, but since many weddings have happened over the last few years, his family doesn’t believe that. Really, he’s doing it to provide us with a movie, one in which he decides to start cleaning up the lives of the people he left behind.

That’s quite literally all there is to the plot. There are a bunch of people in his life that are in need of rescuing, and systematically (and possibly alphabetically for how efficient he is), he begins to solve their problems. All because his mother wants him to, apparently, although he probably would have anyway for how saint like he is. Is someone in debt? He’ll get the money. Is there a drug addict in the family? Detox/rehab it is! He’s such a good person; it’s kind of impossible to not find him an endearing character.

Eventually, Irish mobs get involved, and a very familiar crime story comes out. There’s an old fling that Danny abandoned when he packed up and left town (Amanda Peet), some guns get involved, and there are eventually some thrilling scenes that you’ll only get to if you decide to sit through the hour of tedium that precedes them. And by this point, you’re so involved that the film could probably do anything and you’d applaud. Because if you manage to get through and enjoy the first part of the film, you’re already a fanboy.

That’s not a bad thing, but considering how low-grade the first two acts of Southie are, it was really hard for me to like it. I’m not from Boston, and I’m sure the film will play way differently there, but the mob wars story has been done far better in earlier films, and the “clean up the family” storyline is dull and simple. The only tension is what’s brewing underneath, but that comes up so infrequently that it’s barely worth mentioning. I wanted to sleep during Southie, and for a while I thought I did doze off. But then the film still went nowhere and I realized that even if I did fall asleep, I wouldn’t have missed anything.

This is a mostly uneventful drama — and I use the word “drama” about as loosely as possible. You’ll like Danny — I mean, why wouldn’t you — but he seems so untouchable, so perfect, that you’ll never care for him or his safety. He can’t be touched by the mob, as he’s too perfect. His family is full of ungrateful people, with the only one you’ll grow to like being his mother (Anne Meara).

But then you think about how wrong she might have gone to raise so many terrible, terrible children. Only Danny turned out okay, and he, a former alcoholic, only did so after leaving for three years. Mrs. Quinn seems like a nice enough lady, and certainly the streets of South Boston had something to do with how her children grew up, but how much should she be blamed? Yes, this is the type of thing I was thinking about in Southie. Not, you know, what was actually going on in the film.

The best part about Southie is how it establishes the setting in which it takes place. I suppose the “toughest neighborhood in America” tagline explains it all. This setting has been used in films before, and even if you haven’t seen those movies, Southie does a good enough job explaining to you why you don’t really want to live in South Boston. It is a rough place to grow up and live, and you see that very clearly in Danny’s family — even if I still don’t think that absolves his mother of blame.

The acting is surprisingly good, considering it doesn’t have a ton of established or even well-known names. Donnie Wahlberg is the second most famous Wahlberg brother — the role was actually offered to Mark, but the filmmakers couldn’t afford him — and he shows a general likability and the potential to show intensity. He makes for a good lead, and based just on Southie, he could be a leading actor. None of the other males are worthy of mention.

On the female side, the most sympathetic actor is Anne Meara as the elderly mother. She gets that way simply by showing determination and kindness even though she’s suffering from heart disease. Rose McGowan turns in a surprisingly strong performance as Danny’s alcoholic sister, getting a few scenes to really show that she has dramatic chops. I was most impressed with her here, actually, and anyone who is a fan of hers needs to see Southie simply to witness her performance.

There is very little to say about Southie. It’s a generic crime movie for its final half hour, and a nothing movie for the first two-thirds that it plays. It tries to establish characters, it succeeds in establishing setting, but it fails to give us reason to care or feel excited. It sits there, hoping that we’ll care simply because of where the film takes place. Maybe those of you who live in Boston will greatly appreciate it — The Boondock Saints was a massive hit there, after all — but for most of the potential audience, it’s worthless.

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