Saul Rubinek’s feature film debut as director was a project developed from a work with theatrical elements – in this case, a one-act stage play by Rick Cleveland Rubinek had previously directed for the stage.
Jerry and Tom (1998) is bookended by a present-day scene split in two, with the mid-section providing a chronological flow of events showing how an eager beaver named Jerry (Sam Rockewell) at a car dealership eventually becomes the lead in a hitman team. Learning the ropes from mentor Tom (Joe Mantegna), Jerry develops a more pro-active and sadistic streak that eventually convinces Tom it might be time to retire from an increasingly stressful gig after watching a decent kid become a creature with little respect for Tom’s sacred code of conduct.
The evolution of the pair’s working and personal relationships is enriched and later affected by the multiple murders they commit to strangers, old friends, and brother-like figures that simply have to be rubbed out due to muddy issues.
Cleveland’s darkly funny script is extremely verbose, and Rubinek keeps the focus on character interactions rather than physical actions, so all murders happen off-screen, and any gruesome details are reduced to metaphorical shots. Paul Sarossy’s cinematography is restricted to occasional pans, cranes, and tracking shots, but for the most part (and certainly during the films’ early scenes), things are kept to long takes and master shots – a stylistic ploy similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s own morose suspense film, Rope (1948), wherein the director used long takes and choreographed camera movements in place of traditional montage.
Most of the time the cast is sitting and discussing, reasoning, arguing, and weighing life issues, but the scenes themselves aren’t mere padding designed to keep the film’s running table at feature length. Cleveland’s dialogue is styled to evoke ordinary guys analysing aspects of their odd little craft, which Jerry learns through un-sexy apprenticeship program he eventually spices up with more creative kills.
If the film has any major flaws, it’s the reliance on multiple kills to advance the story, and allowing too much time on the broad flashback chronology that makes up the film’s hefty mid-section; there’s also a running motif of close friends and aging mentors being knocked off, which naturally sets up the conclusion to the halved present day scene.
Paul Sarossy’s cinematography excels in the gliding sequences where the camera glides past the frayed edges or walls of interior and exterior sets into a wholly new scene, although the print and 2000 transfer used by Lionsgate is old; details are soft, and the colours in early scenes are a bit harsh. The sound is very clean, however, and David Buchbinder’s jazzy score really helps accent some darkly funny moments, as well as give scenes a bit of momentum when the visuals remain too static.
Perhaps the film’s best element is the acting. The two leads have great chemistry, and one gets a sense Rubinek spent a lot of time helping the actors refine their performances. Ted Danson, Peter Riegert, and William H. Macy are very strong in their ‘victim’ bit parts, and it’s fun to watch Rockwell play his character with so many layers; Jerry undergoes a clear evolution in maturity and confidence, which Rockwell conveys through movement and speech.
Mantegna, in turn, portrays Tom as a zen killer who has increasingly less patience for his excitable partner; he’s the straight man in the killing team, and provides contrast, and remains an anchor in what could easily have been a film designed as a showcase of quirky characters and eccentric behaviour. (The only unintentional amusement comes from Mantegna’s dialogue delivery, which immediately evokes his characterization of Fat Tony, from The Simpsons.)
Lionsgate’s DVD contains few extras save for a zippy trailer (quite deceptive in conveying a fast-paced black comedy), and some cast/crew notes. Riegert, billed in the trailer, has one scene, and Sarah Polley, billed in the end credits, has a cameo as Jerry’s hard-asleep, seen once in an overhead shot wearing a bizarro curly wig. (Note: far more details regarding the production of Jerry and Tom can be found in the links section below)
Cleveland’s subsequent work as writer and producer includes the brilliant Maximum Bob (1998), The West Wing (1999), Six Feet Under (2003-2005), and Mad Men (2008). Rubinek’s other directorial efforts include Saul Rubinek’s other films as director include Cruel but Necessary (2005), and the TV movies Club Land (2001), Bleacher Bums (2002).
To read an interview with Saul Rubinek, click HERE !
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan