When Benny (Jon Cross) is released from prison, he finds his options limited. His ex-girlfriend is shacked up with his brother Dave (Benjamin Kanes), and his mother has no place for him at home. To make things worse, he still owes money to a local criminal, who has set up a boxing match for Benny to fight in, and lose, in an effort to pay off that debt.
So Benny checks in to a motel while he tries to get his bearings. At the same time, Stella (Molly Kunz) arrives from out of town and, also with no place to go, checks into the same motel. Unlike her new friend Benny, however, Stella seems capable of keeping a job. As their friendship grows, so does Benny’s desperation to make some money, and he is forced to consider some extreme options.
Dan and Paul Cantagallo’s Benny the Bum is a Philadelphia tale, and there’s no mistaking that, mainly because the film won’t let you think anything else. It’s unapologetic in its pride, and to a certain extent that’s fine by me. I’m all for a city becoming a character in a film, and I love Philadelphia. Half my wardrobe is made up of jerseys for Philly teams, I’m addicted to TastyKakes, cheese steaks and Philly soft pretzels. Philly is my hometown city.
Now did those last few sentences seem like I’m trying too hard to sell you on the idea that I love Philly? If it did, you’ll understand the feeling I got while watching the film, because the continual referencing to Philly was a bit much, even for me. Since the film sets itself up for some Rocky conversation (a film about a boxer, in Philly, who doesn’t want to be a bum and dresses somewhat like Rocky Balboa… come on, OF COURSE we’d have to mention Rocky), let’s look at how Philly was a major character in that film, but no one went out of their way to point it out. Rocky Balboa didn’t need to drop a reference to cheese steaks for you to know how Philly that film is.
And I get it. With Stella being from out of town, of course it makes sense that Benny would show her around and, as he does, that she might refer to him as “Mr. Philadelphia.” That’s cool in my book. But it seems like the film is so interested in you knowing that it’s set in Philly, that it wants to remind you all the time instead of just having the film be in Philly, and letting the city speak for itself. I’m not saying folks from around Philly don’t mention TastyKakes in conversation, but not in the contrived way it seems to come out in this film.
My other big issue with the film is the character of Benny who, for pretty much the entire film, is a bum. I know, that’s the title of the film so why am I surprised? I guess I expected his character to have an arc or something, but for the most part he gets out of prison and then makes one defiantly wrong move after another. How am I supposed to root for a guy who seems like he’s doing his best to go back to prison? He’s defiant from the first to the last, and that may be the defining trait of his character, but where does he grow, if it all?
Stella isn’t much better, as her character seems to exist solely to be hit on by every male character that shares the screen with her. It seems like, if she’s alone in public, some guy is hitting on her. Which, okay, that happens in real life, but it makes her an object more than a character. She seems to exist to motivate, but that’s about it. Which is a shame, because Molly Kunz does a great job in the film, you just wish she’d be given more to work with.
All that ranting aside, the film isn’t without its moments. Even though John Gray’s Bump is tasked with being the goofy tough guy that’s there mostly for comic relief, he does a great job at it. Do I know people like him? I’m related to people like him, and when all is said and done, he’s the one character that actually seems to grow over the course of the film, making tough decisions that affect his character.
Keeping on the comic relief track, the film is at its best in its more comedic moments. It’d be hard to straight-up call this film a comedy, but there are some solid laughs in the film. It’s like it almost wants to be a romantic comedy, but doesn’t want you to think that, so that’s why there’s all these tough guy elements to the plot.
And, for all my bitching about the often contrived way Philly is forced into the film, when it’s allowed to just be itself and exist without being referenced, it’s as great as ever. I understand the allure of Philadelphia, and kudos to the film for not just making this a stroll through the tourist-friendly sections of the city. Visually there are some incredible shots in the film.
So where do I finally stand on Benny the Bum? I think there’s good in it, and there’s stuff I don’t dig. I think, like its main character, the film has a defiant chip on its shoulder, and it wants you to know it. And that’s very Philly, which is probably why I wish this was better, and why I’m so damned hard on it. When something goes out of its way to represent Philadelphia, those of us who love the city want to see greatness, but that’s not what I got here. The film made solid contact, ran out a tough grounder, but still got thrown out at first; I appreciate the effort, but it’s still an out.
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