Saturday, February 23, 2008

Film Review: Quest for Justice

"When the law is on the wrong side, only one man will fight for the people." Opens Friday nationwide.

The latest offering from Christopher Guest (This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman) centers around the fictional Community Board 20 in the Ebbetsania section of Brooklyn, a sleepy neighborhood famous only as the birthplace of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

Ebbetsania resident and retired colonoscopy technician Joe Ignazzio (Harry Shearer) is a regular attendee at the meetings, part of his 25-year crusade to get officers of the 58th Precinct to stop ticketing him when he parks in front of the fire hydrant next to Ohira's Diner. At every meeting he brandishes photos of Community Board Chair Steve Greenberg (Guest) parked by the hydrant without a ticket.

The board is abuzz when Rubin (Ed Begley, Jr.) mentions in a speech "how much I owe to Ebbetsania," and Rubin's high school sweetheart Marie (Catherine O'Hara), chair of the 58th Precinct Community Council, mentions that he told her he "longs for the good old days playing stickball on East 28th Place." Convinced that Rubin is mulling a run for the City Council seat being vacated by Marie's husband Jack (William H. Macy), the board members fall all over themselves trying to curry favor with Rubin for their pet projects. Particularly eager is Joe, who has kept his account with Citibank even though Citibank refused to join the Ebbetsania Merchants' Association, and is convinced that this will give him "pull" with Rubin.

Guest's movies have all had stellar ensemble casts, and Quest for Justice is no exception. The chemistry between Joe and his wife Dee Dee (Felicity Huffman), and the tension between his mission and her desire to keep Marie as a customer in her nail salon, is skillfully played. Janeane Garofalo and Parker Posey are excellent as the lesbian environmentalists behind the perennially frustrated organization, "Windmills for Ebbetsania." The bungled attempt by Steve and Marie to consummate a long-desired affair in the back of a chartered bus returning from Atlantic City is another choice moment. Sandra Oh, as second-generation diner owner Kitty Ohira, manages to highlight a serious issue (the frustration of the neighborhood's Japanese minority at being excluded from the political games) without either disrupting the comedy or descending into racial humor. Laura Linney's performance as Judith Rubin deserves mention as well.

This film lives up to the quality of acting and production we have come to expect from Guest's movies. Unfortunately, the writing suffers from a problem we have also come to expect from Guest. The film could work based solely on the humor derived from the hubris and monomania of the characters, but Guest unnecessarily goes beyond that to portray them as stupid. Once he gets over that, his films will be perfect. This is still a must-see for anyone familiar with neighborhood politics.

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