Nowhere near as provocative as its title might imply, Palookaville director Alan Taylor’s new film revisits an Alphabet City virtually unseen since Paul Morrissey’s vibrant gangland dramedy Mixed Blood. Joe (David Krumholtz), who works at his uncle’s newspaper stand in pre-Disneyfied Hell’s Kitchen, marries a Show World stripper, Annabelle (Clara Bellar), for green-card purposes, but the couple falls in love (off-screen, where much of the film’s significant action, like Joe’s affair with another woman, seems to pan out) and moves to Lower East Side apartment whose motley residents guard like a fortress from the area’s junkies.
But what are the tenants—who form a collective called “the corporation”—trying to protect exactly? Money? Drugs? Vinyl copies of Madonna’s “Lucky Star”? Anything is more credible than—get this—lead pipes unconnected to the walls of the building that still manage to miraculously affect everyone’s running water. Are the junkies going to snort coke through them? Beat hookers over the head? (I must have missed something.) More importantly, where are the junkies to begin with? Are they unseen because Taylor’s budget didn’t allow for a few twitching extras or because the drug fiends don’t exist at all? No answers are forthcoming, but that the streets of the film are scarcely populated supports the former theory, and that the film’s slum occupies space on fictional Avenue E lends credence to the latter fantasy scenario.
Shot on crummy digital video, Kill the Poor‘s visual focus is as fuzzy as its social perspective. The film’s press notes suggest Joe and Annabelle’s new hood represents an urban frontier where the couple must struggle to achieve their version of the American Dream, but for that to be true Taylor would have had to muster a credible sense of external danger or more clearly define the couple’s desires beyond the vagary of Joe wanting to return to the place where his grandmother was born. But that’s flack hype that shouldn’t be forced onto the film anyway. More credibly, and this is to Taylor’s credit, the stage seems set for an exposé of gentrification in action: Jewish Joe moves to the Lower East Side and, with the help of his fellow tenants (a nelly queen, a slumming Columbia grad student, an abrasive grunge chick, a Latino repairman, and an African-American underground artist), conspires to evict Carlos (Paul Calderon) and his son from the building because they don’t pay rent. (Carlos lived there first and protects the block with a wooden bat, and as such feels entitled to a free ride.) Pity, though, the stage is left untended.
The film asks us to suspend our disbelief but it’s impossible to buy these calculated “types” realistically converging under one roof. Besides, once Taylor—who does a fine enough job recreating the story’s early ‘80s LES milieu with as little as a few shots of graffitied walls and abandoned lots—resorts to jumbling the story’s timeline for a faux sense of narrative urgency (the effect isn’t entirely uninteresting, just transparent), he loses sight of the story’s social message, focusing instead on setting up the logistics for an LES edition of Clue. Who burned down Carlos’s apartment? Was it Grunge Chick with a Hammer and Cigarette Lighter? Jewish Boy with an Ax and Book of Matches? I don’t care because I don’t want to play. I’d rather see how the eradication of Carlos and his son from the hood changes the area’s social fabric, a vision of moral and social consequence Taylor denies his audience.