Broke Even is a wonderful example of true independent filmmaking.
Shot entirely on film and on location in various New York locales, the look captured is very authentic. Topping it off is an extremely talented ensemble cast that take us right into their stomping grounds effortlessly.
The story revolves around three post-high school friends, Dot (Kevin Corrigan), Curry (Michael Lowry), and Lem (Mick Cunningham). Corrigan is probably the most notable of the cast members, having played in several films to date including Buffalo ’66, Walking and Talking, and GoodFellas.
The three are Bronx working class buddies stuck in their lives with no way out. The only one of the three that seems to have any desire to leave this listless lifestyle is Dot, an aspiring photographer working for a real estate agent taking photos of run-down houses on evicted lots. The opening scene of the film, where Dot’s work is interrupted by a big baseball-bat-wielding neighbor disgruntled by the house’s eviction, perfectly sets the tone of the movie. It’s a humorous scene shot through the perspective of Dot’s camera on its tripod, and as such gives us point-of-view not only of his job, but also capsulates his life in this city. As if confined to the fish-eye tunnel vision of his camera, Dot is trapped here.
Trapped alongside him with similar life blinders is Lem, a carpet factory worker who barely supports himself and his decrepit mother. Mrs. Lemleigh suffers from Alzheimer’s and only wants to care for her son but often forgets how (she insists on making him “peanut butter and butter” sandwiches but forgets the recipe).
Then there is the third friend in the trio, Curry, whose life exists mostly in his car. As a cabby, his car is his income, and the streets provide his clientele. So for Dot his camera, Lem his mother, and Curry his cab, these three guys are here to stay.
It doesn’t help that the three are also compulsive gamblers. From curling to horse racing to baseball (“Yankees are the best stock in the world”), they’re addicted to high-risk quick-buck shortcuts. In their meager lives, gambling appears like the only way out. Their neighborhood bookie and former friend Kenny is more than happy to unload them of their hard-earned cash.
As their gambling debt piles out of control, they meet Mr. Lazurus (who looks eerily like the brother Joe Pesci never had). Lazurus offers them the ultimate bet — viaticals.
The word itself is derived from the Latin verb “viare,” meaning to travel, and from the related word “viaticum,” which refers to Eucharist or Communion given to a dying person.
According to the NVA (National Viatical Association):
“A viatical settlement is simply the sale of an existing life insurance policy by a terminally ill person to a third party in return for a percentage of the face value of the policy paid immediately.” 1
First appearing in the 1980s, viatical transactions provided a means for terminally ill AIDS patients to access some of the cash value in their life insurance policies to live on during their dwindling number of days. Viatical companies soon emerged, as did scam artists, buying up policies and selling shares to investors with inflated return rates. The risk lies in how long the policyholder will live, a prediction becoming much more difficult with medical advances. 2
In Lazurus’ scheme, the stakes are much higher than simple horse races. It’s life or death. But Dot isn’t very convinced about the idea, and increasingly distances himself from his two friends.
Filling this gap is a chance meeting in a subway with an enigmatic woman named Leslie. Played with wonderfully quirky and impassioned vitality by Elizabeth Berridge, Leslie believes in the “inherent goodness of man.” She fiercely searches for the beauty in people, and teaches Dot to disregard preconceptions.
For Dot, Leslie represents the fresh perspective he’s been yearning for, a different way of looking at others and even his friends. But his friends’ debt pressures him to choose between them and this new life with Leslie. As the title suggests, his desire is simply to break even, and Leslie is his best bet. The dynamic between the two reminded me somewhat of Leaving Las Vegas, where two outcasts found in each other a mutual understanding that transcended social stereotypes and judgments.
Leslie, Dot, and Lem are extremely complex, richly drawn characters, testament to screenwriter Carl V. Dupré. He uses silence as much as dialog. There are amazing passages of feeling in still scenes expertly expressed by talented actors. The cast’s authenticity is reminiscent to that in Mean Streets or even On the Waterfront.
With that in mind, it’s important to realize that the cast was unpaid to support the feature’s shoestring budget, which only allowed for an 18-day shooting schedule!
According to director Dave Feldman, “The challenge was to build tension without ever pulling the proverbial gun.” Very wisely, Feldman balanced the story lines, in that the underlying love story supercedes the surface gambling caper.
I spoke with Feldman and Dupré after the screening about their film. They are now in the midst of getting national distribution. Hopefully it is picked up soon. If and when it comes out, don’t miss Broke Even. It’s a beautiful, engaging film.