[box cover]

Buffalo '66

Universal Home Video

Starring Vincent Gallo, Christina Ricci, Anjelica Huston
and Ben Gazzarra

Written and directed by Vincent Gallo

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Review by Joe Barlow                    

Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66 begins with one man's desperate search for a bathroom, and never really deviates. Indeed, the entire film is centered around the idea of searching: searching for bathrooms, for acceptance, for love, for revenge — concepts with which we're all familiar. Gallo mirrors these universal traits in his method of direction — whereas many films try to show off the uniqueness of their shooting locations (Good Will Hunting is unmistakably shot in Boston, for example), Buffalo '66 takes the opposite approach: although set in Buffalo, New York, the film's hotels, suburbs, and yes, bathrooms, could really be located anywhere. It lends the story a documentary feel that gives an element of truth to the events.

Although the approach is unorthodox, it's an appropriate way to tell this particular tale. Buffalo '66 is a gritty, fragmented film, with little use for convention or formula. Although the story itself doesn't really hold up to close scrutiny, one gets the feeling that the movie believes in itself. There's authenticity here, a fact that allows me to forgive some of the work's more disenchanting moments.

Billy Brown (Vincent Gallo) is, quite simply, a loser. Recently paroled after a five-year stint in the slammer, he's about to pay a visit to his parents (Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzarra), whom he hasn't seen in over half a decade. Trying to save what little face he has left, Billy never told them he was going to jail; instead, he fabricated a tale involving the secrecy surrounding his (fictional) job with the government, and told them that his work would require him to be out of touch for a while.

Painfully aware that his parents consider him a failure, Billy seems obsessed with the idea of winning their approval. Determined to convince them that the past five years of his life have been pure bliss, he informs his mother that he recently got married — a plan which backfires when his mother insists that he bring his wife along.

Needing to produce the fictional spouse, Billy kidnaps a dancer named Layla (a spunky performance by Christina Ricci) and forces her into the role. He offers her a deal: if she gives a convincing performance as his wife, he'll let her go free; otherwise, he threatens, "I'll never talk to you again." But Layla has a few aces of her own up her sleeve, and rapidly proves herself more capable of handling the situation than her would-be captor. Like the siren in the Eric Clapton song, this Layla soon has poor Billy on his knees as their relationship grows increasingly complex.

There's a lot of fun contained in these scenes, with many of the finest moments belonging to Ricci, who retains her composure even while being kidnapped. Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzarra are suitably slimy as Billy's disenchanted parents, who'd rather watch football than talk to the unwanted son they haven't seen in five years. And Gallo himself (who wrote, starred, and directed) is a fine Billy, frustrated and easily ruffled, but containing more substance beneath his rough exterior than we initially suspect. All the actors have great comedic timing, and witty dialogue ricochets around the screen.

But there are moments of powerful drama here, too. Much of Billy's mental anguish is explained to us during a conversation with his mother, who screams "I wish I'd never had you!" to her son. (The reason? Billy's birth made her unable to attend the Buffalo Bills' appearance at the Superbowl that year.) Another equally draining scene occurs after Layla asks to see some old family photographs: "Where's that picture of Billy when he was a baby?" his mother asks his father — subtly indicating that she didn't bother to take more than one. Moments like this work on both comedic and dramatic levels; we chuckle at the insensitivity of these parents, even as we pity our "hero." We certainly understand where his low self-image comes.

Much less satisfying is a subplot involving Billy's plan to assassinate a Buffalo football player for missing a 1990 field goal (an act which inadvertently sent Billy to jail; I'll let the film unravel the rest of the details for you). Trite and ridiculous, this whole tangent is everything the rest of the movie is not — alien and impersonal.

Other questions are simply puzzling. Both Layla and Billy are highly insecure people, for instance, though we never learn anything of Layla's background. Why is she drawn to Billy? Is this type of behavior normal for her? So much more personable and intelligent than her would-be kidnapper, it seems odd for her sights to be targeted so low. She obviously had a larger story to tell, and quite honestly I think Layla '66 would have made a more interesting film.

In the end, I wasn't sure what Gallo expected me to take away from the experience. Is the story's message supposed to be "Love can offer redemption, even to someone like Billy?" Perhaps — but the lesson I took away from Buffalo '66 was: "No matter how badly you treat a woman, she'll love you, because golly gee, you deserve it." I must confess, I have my doubts.

— Joe Barlow

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