Down the Shore suggests what might happen if TBS and Bruce Springsteen were to collaborate on a sitcom set in hell. The film is steeped in the sort of contrivances and clichés that are meant to evoke the bibilical suffering of the disenfranchised American working-class hero. Characters speak in curt, wounded sentences against the backdrop of a Jersey shore that never seems to enjoy the rise or set of the sun. Amusement parks are abandoned and desolate, bars are dank and foreboding, and the one movie theater we briefly glimpse appears to be run out of the back of a condemned garage. Most everyone appears to have a drinking or drug problem and, really, who can blame them? This is the land of broken dreams, baby.
The film's characters tap-dance around obvious secrets for the better part of an hour until the inevitable group unburdening in the third act. Bailey (James Gandolfini) and Wiley (Joe Pope) are friends who're obviously bound by a significant something from their pasts. Wiley is married to Bailey's lifelong neighbor and obvious hardcore crush, Mary (Famke Janssen), and the two have a mentally disabled son, Martin (John Magaro), who clearly favors Bailey over his father. Interrupting this rich sonata of misery is Jacques (Edoardo Costa), a Frenchman who arrives at the shore to inform Bailey of his sister Susan's (Maria Dizzia) death from skin cancer.
Down the Shore's odd tangle of mismatched conceits initially inspires a detached curiosity as to what formula director Harold Guskin and screenwriter Sandra Jennings intend to eventually follow. At first, the film appears to be aiming for a darker version of Tom McCarthy's benevolent-stranger tales, but Jacques's fish-out-of-water buddy situation with Bailey doesn't, disappointingly, have much to do with the primary narrative thrust of the movie. Instead, the filmmakers opt, after quite a bit of portentous dawdling, for a story that's basically an upbeat noir concerned with sons attempting to transcend the sins of their fathers.
The movie is often boring and always ludicrous, but it does offer a reaffirming reminder of what a difference gifted actors can make with even the clumsiest material. Yes, Gandolfini has been playing variations of this role for some time, but his intelligent, empathetical physical subtlety is always welcome, and, in this case particular, greatly needed. Janssen, also underrated, plays her hopelessly stock role with an open warmth that imbues the film's violet scenes with occasional suspense. And Costa, in the role of the miraculous foreigner, has a playful star power that enlivens his moments opposite Gandolfini's gruff, heartbroken old bear. These actors, intentionally or not, affirm the film's theoretical theme of wasted potential.