There’s nothing more disappointing than watching a talented artist struggle to don a new creative hat that’s several sizes too large. The Hungry Ghosts, a charmless and not in the least bit urgent story of moral and spiritual conversion, is actor Michael Imperioli’s directorial debut, and while screenwriting is nothing new for the gifted actor (he wrote five episodes of The Sopranos and co-wrote Spike Lee’s Son of Sam), his lack of experience helming a project is apparent. The authenticity of Imperioli’s understanding of spiritual revolution makes the screenplay, which unevenly vacillates between displays of schmaltzy sentiment and inept skid row melodrama, almost bearable. But Imperioli is undone by his fundamental inability to elicit both a sense of urgency from his plot and affecting performances from bit players, like Steve Schirippa, and weak but adequate amateur performers alike.
The Hungry Ghosts is like Paul Haggis’s Crash, except it’s about how we’re possessed by worldly passions instead of racism and car crashes. One lost soul is a coke addict and a bad father, another is a recovering alcoholic, another may or may not be a recovering nymphomaniac. They all indulge in their respective vices, heedlessly unaware of the consequences of their actions. And the moral of the story is: People can change but only if they want to—and apparently, deep down, we all want to.
The naïvete of Imperioli’s script is maddening, especially because of infrequent hints of a seductive but largely implied darker knowledge of consuming passions that momentarily comes to light after a traumatic discovery in a shower, and just before that in a bizarre and unsettling scene of abortive seduction at a bar. These scenes have a manic sense of dread and a fascination with self-destructive tendencies that borders on the Cronenbergian. Self-mutilation becomes a last-ditch means of corporeal purification: To escape this world’s pain, one must damage others and/or one’s physical self. But if Imperioli can’t find, or better yet, make good actors for his passion play, or even graft a simulated sense of portentousness onto the film’s plot by making the film’s pace more taut, all of the good things he gets right might as well not be there at all.