It’s no wonder that embattled Polish-Catholic Leon (writer/director Roger Majkowski) prays a lot. This excessively angry young man has several crosses to bear and, the way he sees it, all of them are spelled f-a-m-i-l-y.
Leon’s immigrant mother (Janet Sarno) is a banshee who most likely screamed his late father into an early grave; his cretinous younger brother, Anthony, a/k/a “Needles” (Thomas Majkowski) is prone to huffing spray paint when no crack cocaine is available; and his estranged older brother, Gary, is a manipulative psychotic whose drag-queen “wife,” Roz (Jed O. Zion), sprouts tell-tale chest hair — further enraging the homophobic Leon. And it’s not like moving away is an option, given that his chosen profession is delivering newspapers.
The hellish job, however, turns into a possible source of salvation when one of his customers, an elderly alcoholic with a criminal past named Henry Zabriskie (Munro Gabler), blows his brains out. The old man mistakenly sends Leon $300, plus a mysterious note written in Polish. Leon, with drug-addled Anthony in tow, first must come to his brother Gary for an English translation.
On discovering that the suicide note refers to a large amount of money hidden “beneath stone,” the trio quickly makes the acquaintance of the remaining members of the late Mr. Zabriskie’s family, who are nearly as wigged out as Leon’s clan. Mother Eve (affecting Anita Keal) is semi-catatonic, occasionally waking up to a zombie-like delusional state. Younger daughter Meredith (Elizabeth Van Meter) is a fragile-seeming-flower whose severe Tourette’s syndrome responds only to crack. And elder daughter Sheila (Orlagh Cassidy) is a tough cookie who’s as angry and close to the breaking point as Leon.
Once it turns out that “beneath stone” refers to the girls’ long dead-and-buried brother, “Stone,” we’re off on a genuinely original variation of the old treasure-hunt story, with an aftermath even Fred C. Dobbs couldn’t have thought up. (Possible alternative title: “It’s a Psychotic Psychotic Psychotic Psychotic World.”)
Just so there’s no misunderstanding, the above is funny. Really funny. Disturbing at times, sad at others, romantic, scatological and occasionally violent, but also laugh-so-loud-you-scare-the-neighbors hilarious, “Passing Stones” redefines screwball comedy. It works so well and on so many levels that I’m tempted to say something so breathless, excessive and clichéd that I’m bound to get quoted. How’s this? “The best American comedy since ‘Rushmore.'” There, I’ve said it and I’m glad, I tell you, glad! Ha, ha, ha!
Looking at the end credits, it’s clear that “Passing Stones” is something of a family project and the Majkowskis have every right to brag about the achievement of writer-director Roger. He’s come up with a simple, compelling story filled with fascinating, and likable-despite-themselves characters, some of whom are actually women. Then, after a slightly excessive, over the top opening sequence, he delivers that screenplay with the skill and intensity needed to sell this way-past-quirky tale.
Of course, Majkowski had help, most notably from a remarkably strong ensemble. Among the stand-outs are Orlagh Cassidy, who can be tough, shrill and beautiful all at the same time. The similarly fetching Elizabeth Van Meter brilliantly handles what may be toughest role as the Tourette’s plagued sister, switching from heartfelt sweetness to spasmodic cries of “hard-assed bitch!” without the slightest hint of calculation. (I think I’m in love.) And Tom Ellis as Gary pulls off the nearly impossible, making us respect a lunatic whose idea of drug treatment is chopping off his brother’s little finger.
Filmed in non-widescreen black and white by Alex Turner and Andrew Buckland, “Passing Stones” looks great on video. Sadly, I understand that the film transfer was not particularly good and may be part of the reason this extremely deserving production has yet to set the world on fire. Nevertheless, “Passing Stones” is the kind of movie that Film Threat was created to help support. So, someone, support it! Now!