By Sheila O'Malley
There's a moment in Where God Left His Shoes, directed by Salvatore Stabile and starring John Leguizamo, which encapsulates its missteps as a film. It's Christmas Eve in New York City and there's a shot of a homeless shelter with a long line waiting to get in, accompanied on the soundtrack by "Christmas Time is Here", the song from A Charlie Brown Christmas. What could have been a quietly effective scene, full of the tragic dichotomies of the situation ("Man, how bleak it must be to be in a homeless shelter on Christmas Eve?") is ruined by the overly-obvious music choice. So instead of being moved, I felt tired and cranky, the way I always do when someone treats me like I'm not all that intelligent. Like: "Yeah, yeah, I get it, I get it. Whatever."
That's not the only example of a music choice in this film that's way too on-the-nose. Where God Left His Shoes is supposed to be gritty, realistic, and relentless. And Vanja Cernjul, director of photography, films the city that way. It looks desolate, cold, blue. The streets are comfortless, empty. Alleys go nowhere; there's no way out. New York looks like it did in the movies of the 1970s. So it might have been better to have no soundtrack whatsoever. If the music is there to just comment on what we already see, then you do not need it.
John Leguizamo plays Frank Diaz, a boxer, a Gulf War veteran, a husband and father. Through various misfortunes, he and his family are evicted from their apartment. They have two hours to clear out. The family does not appear to have an extended support system of relatives or friends to lean on, so they are forced to go to a homeless shelter where they try to get back on their feet again. The film is effective in showing how little it takes to go off the rails, what "paycheck-to-paycheck" really means.
On Christmas Eve, three months into their stay in the shelter, an opportunity to get into low-income housing comes up, but when it is discovered that Frank does not have a job (he works construction, but it's strictly off the books) he is told that he must find a job by 6 p.m. that day, and only then will the apartment be theirs. (Echoes of Dustin Hoffman's desperation in Kramer vs. Kramer.) So Frank and his son set out to find a job. On Christmas Eve. Frank Diaz is obviously a man at the end of his rope, and as the hours of the day move on, the urgency of his situation escalates. But the urgency feels a little bit manufactured—imposed, as opposed to organic. There are moments where the plot dominates the characters and forces them to behave in certain ways in order to up the ante, to further turn the screw. It's as if the filmmakers don't trust their material (the music choices are another example of this).
Then Frank does something in the second half of the film that gets them kicked out of the shelter altogether. This action was so out of the blue for me. It seemed completely out of character. But the plot required it. This is not to say that people cannot behave in incomprehensible ways, especially when they are under a great deal of pressure. But this event did not feel that way to me. It felt imposed from above, and that is a major flaw.
Leguizamo is terrific. He has a breathtaking moment of desperation with the superintendent of the low-income housing project. In this one scene, he goes through every emotion in the book. He cajoles, he pleads, he appeals to her higher self, he lashes out, then backtracks, apologizes, and finally—when she relents, just a bit, and gives him a possibility—his veneer cracks, he pauses, and then leans across the table to shake her hand, saying, his eyes full of his entire life, "Thank you." It's a tour de force, and it occurs even with a stilted script, an obvious soundtrack, and an artificial sense of urgency. He's fantastic, and so is David Castro, the terrific child-actor who plays Frank's son Justin. Even referring to him as a "child-actor" doesn't feel right. He's a good actor, period. He has tough scenes: he has to cry, yell, be a brat, have moments of true vulnerability. His character sprains his ankle during the day and so he has to limp and stagger for the majority of the film. David Castro handles all of these elements of his character like a pro.
Yet I was left strangely unmoved by Where God Left His Shoes. And I wanted to be moved. I'm a sucker for family drama, for father-son conflict, for urgent situations that show people at their rawest and most true. But instead I felt, at the end as at the beginning: "Yeah, yeah, I get it, I get it. Whatever."
Sheila O'Malley blogs about movies, books, and mortifying high school memories at The Sheila Variations.