FIVE years have passed since John Turturro supercharged the movie "Five Corners" with his fierce performance as a vengeful psychotic on the loose in a modest Bronx neighborhood. In those years, Mr. Turturro has fulfilled his promise as a talented and versatile young actor.
His most brilliant work is found in Spike Lee's masterpiece "Do the Right Thing," where he plays a bigoted pizza-parlor worker in an African-American neighborhood, and in Joel Coen's inventive "Barton Fink," where he gives uproarious intensity to the title character, a brooding New York playwright trying to give Hollywood an artistic touch in the 1930s. The latter role earned him the Cannes Film Festival's award for best actor two years ago.
His performance in "Mac" is not on a level with those inspired appearances, but the new picture marks a turning point in his career for another reason: It is Turturro's debut as a movie director and also as a screenwriter, since it's based on a script he began writing more than a dozen years ago.
A tribute to the life, work, and values of his late father - an Italian immigrant who earned his living as a carpenter - the movie is clearly Turturro's labor of love. Its honesty and sincerity are unquestionable, and carry the tale through various rough spots that Turturro's filmmaking skills aren't strong enough to avoid.
The hero is Mac, the oldest son of a carpenter much like Turturro's father must have been. At the beginning of the story, Mac and his two brothers are working for a dishonest contractor who will cut any corner and ignore any regulation to get a job done more quickly and cheaply. Eventually he tears himself loose from this corrupt situation - making a forceful point about his dedication to top-quality work - and sets up his own business in partnership with his brothers.
Their adventures range from a high-tension land auction, which turns disastrous when Mac gets into a bidding war with his former boss, to the challenge of building and selling houses in a suburban area where cows rather than people are the primary population. Mac must also deal with the wavering commitment of his brothers, neither of whom shares his bedrock devotion to hands-on labor as a way of life.
As written by Turturro and Brandon Cole, the final version of the screenplay for "Mac" is not always completely clear about the emotions and motivations of its characters, and Turturro's directing style is heavy-handed at times.
While the film never fails to convey Turturro's passionate feelings about the subject of his story, it makes some of its points with a lack of gracefulness that Mac himself would be quick to criticize in the work of a carpenter or a bricklayer on a construction site. Michael Badalucco and Carl Capotorto give earthy performances that don't match the steaming energy of Turturro's acting in the title role; and the editing by Michael Berenbaum seems too emphatic at times.
There is good acting by John Amos as one of Mac's most valuable workers, however, and by Ellen Barkin as a young woman whose offbeat beauty exercises a strong attraction on Mac's easily distracted brothers. The ambience of New York City's outlying Queens borough in the mid-1950s is convincingly captured by cinematographer Ron Fortunato, as well. "Mac" is a minor film in many ways, but the strength of its conviction gives it an unpolished power that's not easily brushed aside.
* "Mac" has a * rating. It contains some sexuality and violence, and a large amount of extremely foul language.