The Upper West Side exerts a stronger gravitational pull than any black hole. Astronomers may not acknowledge this, but anyone who has lived between Central Park West and the Hudson, from 116th Street to Columbus Circle, can tell you this is true.
At any rate, filmmaker Jason Chaet and screenwriter Rick A. Moore seem fairly certain of this scientific principle, which seems to lie behind their new comedy, “Putzel,” which will have its New York premiere on Feb. 26.
Walter “Putzel” Himmelstein (Jack T. Carpenter) is someone who, quite simply, cannot bring himself to step outside the fateful orbit. In his seemingly passionate desire to inherit his grandfather’s fabled smoked fish business, he will do anything except go south of 59th Street or north of 116th. (OK, we all know that the UWS really ends with the park, at 110th, but humor these people.) He’s willing to break up the budding relationship between his Uncle Sid (John Pankow) and Sally (Melanie Lynskey), a dancer and occasional customer, and stay together with his own straying wife (Allegra Cohen). He’ll put up with the demented delivery guy, Tunch (Fred Berman), whose passion for smoked salmon exceeds not only Walter’s but that approved by society.
In short, he wants to own the business badly enough to start dating Sally and (in an about face)? to encourage his wife to go off with her latest beau, Hector Gonzalez (Adrian Martinez), as long as he can do it all in those few blocks.
As a premise, this plotline has promise, and Chaet and Moore manage to milk it for as many laughs as they can. The film’s characters are glib but funny, unlike too many contemporary rom-com manikins, and Carpenter, Pankow and Lynskey make an appealing, if somewhat unconventional triangle. If you accept the artificiality of the basic idea, combined with the elements of farce that run through film, then you are halfway to a good time already. Carpenter, who was so effective in “Harvest” a couple years ago, is particularly adept at the mood shifts the script calls for.
What lifts “Putzel” above its recent counterparts is that Chaet and Moore don’t push all the buttons on their keypad. Yes, the counterman at Himmelstein’s is a Chinese-American named Song (a lovely, deadpan performance by Steve Park), but they don’t try to milk laughs out of that; in fact, Song is one of the most firmly grounded and sane characters in the film. Likewise, McGinty (Jarlath Conroy), the Irish bar owner for whom Sally works, never turns into a “comic Irishman” vaudeville turn. Frankly, the somewhat self-consciously “zany” comedy of the central plotline is kept from floating away by the stability and ballast provided by the supporting cast. The result is a thoroughly pleasant, if somewhat predictable comedy with a few charming grace notes that raise it above the ordinary.
“Putzel” has its New York premiere on Tuesday, Feb. at 7:30 p.m. at the JCC in Manhattan (334 Amsterdam Ave., at West 76th St.). For information, call (646) 505-4444 or go to www.jccmanhattan.org.