Far from a picture postcard, the New York of Sean Baker’s wonderful Prince of Broadway throbs with life. It is gritty, noisy, vibrant and, like the city itself, wholly enthralling. There’s an intoxicating energy even along the grungiest of side streets. A collision of cultures and classes, it’s just the kind of place a fast-talking Ghanaian immigrant like Lucky might carve out his little storefront slice of the American Dream.
By day, Lucky hustles New York bargain shoppers into the back rooms of businesses where they can choose from a candy store-like variety of counterfeit goods: jewelry, purses, sunglasses, shoes. He’s a true capitalist, a middleman uniting supply and demand under the watchful eyes of the authorities. At night, Lucky likes to take it easy, sleeping with his girlfriend or smoking a little pot with friends in his tiny apartment. It’s a simple, bottom-rung yet hopeful and happy life that is turned upside down when a former girlfriend leaves Lucky a 2-year-old boy she claims is his.
In hands more eager to please, this timeworn setup up could easily have devolved into cutesy Three Men and a Baby territory, but in the same way he spun the simple story of Take Out into movie gold, Baker uses some familiar tropes to launch into an engaging character piece and a rich cinematic essay on the fringes of New York.
Working largely from a script written through improvisation, first time actor Prince Adu embodies hard-working Lucky with great charisma, infectious humor and a gruff but endearing kindness that instantly wins you over to his side. He’s kind of an urban cousin to Souleymane Sy Savane’s impossible-not-to-like Senegalese taxi driver in Ramin Bahrani’s terrific Goodbye Solo. The movie depends almost entirely on Adu’s performance and he makes it work with a purity, believability and lack of self-consciousness you might not get from a more polished performer.
As it is with Bahrani, it’s tempting to compare Baker’s work to the stripped down Italian neorealist cinema that gave us such films as Rome Open City, The Bicycle Thief and Bitter Rice – the tiny budgets, the hand-held camerawork, the lower class milieu – but Baker and Bahrani are nimbler, less heavy-handedly political, less likely to reach for easy emotions and seemingly more interested in the microcosm of individuals than in the examinations of types. No arthouse museum pieces, these. Films like Prince of Broadway are invigorating expressions of real life; messy, chaotic and not always predictable but deeply enlightening and completely satisfying.
Prince of Broadway. USA 2008 (opened theatrically in 2010). Directed, photographed and edited by Sean Baker (he also did the lit it and did the sound design for those of you keeping score at home). Screenplay by Sean Baker and Darren Dean. Musical direction by Joe Rudge and Matthew Smith. Starring Prince Adu, Karren Karaguilian, Aiden Noesi, Kat Sanchez, Keyali Mayaga, Victoria Tate, Edwin Norteye, Edward “Punky” Pagan and Mohamad H. Bzeih. 1 hour 42 minutes. Unrated by the MPAA. 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Filed under: Review
Tags: Aiden Noesi, Darren Dean, Edward "Punky" Pagan, Edwin Norteye, Joe Rudge, Karren Karaguilian, Kat Sanchez, Keyali Mayaga, Matthew Smith, Mohamad H. Bzeih, Prince Adu, Sean Baker, Victoria Tate