Tributes to John Sayles, John Schlesinger and Ken Russell, a focus on Muslim cinema, Shah Rukh Khan’s latest Bollywood star turn and a showcase of local filmmaking helped to round out the eleventh annual Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, which ran from April 4 to April 18 and featured over 200 films. But for one actor-turned-filmmaker, the festival was nothing short of a homecoming.
Adam Baratta, a suburban Philadelphia native and Temple University alum who left home swiftly after graduation to pursue an acting career in L.A., returned triumphantly last week with his new film “Do It for Uncle Manny,” a “Swingers”-inspired comedy that features Baratta as star, director, writer and producer.
Of course, not many strangers got to see the screening since Baratta himself bought out the house for several hundred close friends and family. However, whatever audience he lost in Philadelphia, he already had found at several previous stops around the country.
“Do It for Uncle Manny” has been on the festival circuit for a couple months now, racking up awards in Fargo, Tiburon (the first annual – you indie filmmakers out there take note), Phoenix, Sarasota and New York. No not the New York Film Festival but the New York Film and Video Festival where “Manny” picked up the Best Comedy Award. Yet, after viewing the film, it would be safe to conclude that the story behind the film will be far more appealing to indie film addicts and aspirants than what appears on screen.
In 1996, after being fired from his twelfth bartending gig, Baratta, an actor with chiseled soap opera looks and a few minor film and national commercial credits, decided he was going to create a job opportunity for himself. Cushioned by royalty and unemployment checks, Baratta sat down for a few months and wrote a screenplay. Presumably inspired by his own struggles as an actor in Hollywood, Baratta created a tale of two friends who meet up for a crazy weekend in L.A. and encounter the kind of trouble one would expect from such a setup.
With no experience behind the camera, Baratta successfully pitched his script to Joy Czerwonky, a producer he met at IFP West who challenged him to direct the film himself, provided he could come up with initial financing of $100,000.
With Czerwonky on board as well as agent Larry Schapiro serving as script doctor, Baratta was able to score nearly five times as much from family, friends and other investors. Along with the money came the ability to attract several recognizable names to the project, including director Paul Mazursky (who appears as himself), Louie Anderson, (as a half-witted truck driver) Colin Mochrie (gay maitre’de) and Playboy centerfold Angelica Bridges (eye candy).
Clearly Baratta’s back story reads like a dream sequence that has been played out a million times in the minds of countless filmmaking hopefuls. Unfortunately most of the sequences in “Do It for Uncle Manny” have been played out million times in other films.
Not entirely without merit, “Do It for Uncle Manny” satirizes the spiritually anemic Hollywood “scene” ably enough to offer a few chuckles. Danny, played by Baratta, is the charming movie star aspirant who hooks up with his East Coast – and suitably nerdy – friend Stu (Shane Edelman) while Stu is visiting his Uncle Manny in L.A. Manny (George Wyner) is a big Hollywood producer – the Central Casting kind – with a Rolls, a gaudy house and a penchant for threesomes with starlets. Present only at the end of the film, Manny serves as role model and inspiration for the two weekend revelers, hence the title. When Danny coaxes a reluctant Stu into inviting a young hottie (Kari Wuhrer) back to Manny’s swimming pool after an abysmal night of club-hopping, we hear him invoke the title line in a way that is supposed to inspire Stu to some studly duty and, presumably set the expectation level for the weekend. But Uncle Manny is not exactly “the Gipper” here and getting naked with a beautiful stranger in a Hollywood swimming pool rarely requires a pep talk, even for a geeky business school grad.
Borrowing from films like “Swingers” and “Risky Business” (Uncle Manny’s diamond Rolex serves as the equivalent of that pricey egg artifact that disappeared from Joel’s mantelpiece), Baratta safely applies a road-tested formula without offering much insight into his characters or their motivations. Stu is merely the nebbishy fish out of water and Danny his hormonally charged tour guide. Other than recognizing the networking potential in such a friendship, it’s unclear why Danny would want Stu as a tagalong other than to condescend to him.
Like the characters in “Swingers,” their skirt chasing is less predatory than pathetic, and it is in these scenes where the comedy seems less contrived. The best occurs when Danny and Stu are pulled over by an attractive female cop who, as it turns out, is simply writing tickets between her acting gigs. Even the brief scene where Danny pitches a screenplay to veteran director Paul Mazursky doesn’t match the surrealism of that truly “L.A.” moment.
By taking near total control on his first film, Baratta follows in the footsteps of another devilish charmer, Ed Burns, who broke into the industry with “The Brothers McMullen.” Similarly, Burns wrote what he knew and played a thinly veiled version of himself. But he showed us relatively new territory, mining the romantic dilemmas of three Long Island Irish boys with Madonna/w***e complexes. From “Sunset Boulevard” to “The Player,” Hollywood as subject matter has been traversed numerous times and with great skill. To take it on as a first effort might seem an easy route for an actor who has spent ten years observing and living the mercenary Hollywood life. But like the fabled town itself, “easy” can be deceptively loaded with subtext.
Still, Baratta shows he can pull all the elements together and produce a watchable film with noticeably higher production values than a typical indie first outing. While he might walk away empty-handed at Sundance, Toronto or Cannes, Baratta has collected enough momentum with his first film to argue for a second chance. That ought to be enough to make the folks back home proud.
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