2 By 4 (review)

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A Bronx Tale

It’s a frustrating experience to leave a movie theater feeling as if the people with whom you just spent 90 minutes remain total strangers. It’s doubly frustrating when the movie you’ve just seen is trying to be an intimate exploration of the ghosts that haunt one man and how he comes to recognize them.

Jimmy Smallhorne’s 2 By 4 — he cowrote, directed, and stars — is triply frustrating for me, because it’s set in a world I know, peopled with people I know. I don’t mean “the kind of people I know.” I mean: I know the man whose life inspired 2 By 4, and I still felt like an outsider by the end of the film.
With tight attention to the nitty-gritty details of life, 2 By 4 focuses on working-class Irish immigrant Johnnie (Smallhorne), who lives in Riverdale, in the Bronx, and works construction jobs for his uncle, “Trump” (Chris O’Neill). Though getting his well-earned pay from Trump is like pulling teeth, Johnnie nevertheless seems to have money for cocaine and beer on a regular basis, as do his buddies, construction workers all.

Cocksure and arrogant on the surface, Johnnie suffers from horrible nightmares that leave him huddling in a corner of his apartment like a baby, and he’s a mass of sexual confusion: When his girlfriend, Maria (Kimberly Topper), gives him a pair of leather jeans, thinking he’ll look sexy in them, he’s initially leery of wearing them to his local bar hangout, fearing he’ll be taken for gay, yet he has no problem donning a feather boa and eyeliner for his big show during the bar’s karaoke night. And though he professes to love Maria, he flirts with street hustlers and eventually develops a desperate sort of relationship with one, Christian (Bradley Fitts), a young Australian immigrant. When Johnnie discovers a secret about his uncle Trump, the dark near-memories that plague him and the sexual disorientation starts to make some horrible sense.

2 By 4 has an oddly naturalistic, documentary feel to it, as if Smallhorne had just taken a camera along to Johnnie’s pub and to the Manhattan construction site where he’s working. One scene simply rides along with Johnnie and his fellow workers in the open bed of a pickup truck as they head to work, all of them chattering randomly about the buildings they’re passing: who built them, architectural details of them, and so on. The dialogue is nearly drowned out by wind and city noises, which would have given the scene a dreamlike remove that might have worked within the context of the film, except for an odd choice on Smallhorne’s part: It’s subtitled. The entire film, in fact, is subtitled. Which is really bizarre, because the actors do speak English. Heavily accented English, yes, but it isn’t that hard to understand. Even Maria’s speech is subtitled, and she’s American. So that makes me wonder whether it was unintentional that there are scenes, like the one above and many scenes in Johnnie’s pub, in which is the dialogue barely rises above the background noise. Did Smallhorne just not bother to rerecord dialogue when he should have?

But that’s only secondary here. The big problem with 2 By 4 is that it never really allows us inside the character of Johnnie. The relationships here — between Johnnie and Trump, Johnnie and Maria, Johnnie and his friends — are in the things that these people don’t say to each other. But so much goes unsaid that in the end, the characters, and in particular Johnnie, remains as much a mystery to viewers as he was in the beginning of the film. The film does have some emotionally raw, powerful moments — such as Johnnie’s night terrors — but they feel untethered from the rest of the story.

I’m acquainted with some of the actors who appear in 2 By 4 — we share some Riverdale hangouts — and Smallhorne moves in the same Bronx Irish drama circles than I do (I worked with a local Irish theater group for years), though I haven’t met him. But we occupy the same small world. I should be wondering now whether my familiarity with this world was leading me to see too much in a little film that wouldn’t be clear to others. But if 2 By 4 aimed to introduce me to a world unknown to most, I’m frankly astounded that it leaves even me feeling as if I don’t know this world or these people at all.

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