I can’t say that I’ve spent a lot of time visiting the Jersey Shore in my life, but I’d be lying if I said that the unique seaside culture of that area hasn’t had an impression on me. Following on the heels of many films that have celebrated this key part of the New Jersey experience, Down the Shore features Sopranos star James Gandolfini returning to his native New Jersey in another working class role.
Sometimes all it takes to disrupt a routine life is a new element. Susan (Maria Dizzia) arrives in Paris and meets merry-go-round operator Jacques (Edoardo Costa). Three months later, Jacques goes to Susan’s native New Jersey to visit her brother, Bailey (Gandolfini), who operates a failing shore kiddie theme park. Jacques reveals that Susan, who he married at some point in the previous three months, has died and he has not only inherited half of the family house where Bailey lives, but he intends to live there. Bailey is not happy about the intrusion, especially since it disrupts his friendship with Mary (Famke Janssen) and her mentally-challenged son Martin (John Magaro). Mary is married to Bailey’s best friend Wiley (Joe Pope), who also is the landlord of Bailey’s park. But it’s been a long time since Baily and Wiley were on the same page, especially since Bailey dislikes the way Wiley treats Mary. Jacques’ arrival digs up deeply buried secrets between Mary, Bailey, and Wiley, and their lives will never be the same.
Down the Shore joins the current crop of “Jersey films” that have seem to become more popular since The Sopranos was a hit on HBO. In that sense, it recalls both The Wrestler in its idea of decaying Jersey traditions and Not Fade Away in its celebration of nostalgia (it also helps that Gandolfini and Magaro were the stars of Not Fade Away, which was actually produced after this film). However, I can see why Down the Shore hasn’t been widely released since its debut in January 2011 at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. It is a quiet melodrama that lacks a huge draw — though it’s always great to see Gandolfini in a Jersey-set film, as I pointed out this sort of “sins of the past” story has been done over and over again. The Jersey Shore backdrop certainly adds a lot of flavor to the film, but since that area has been a tremendously popular setting for recent films that backdrop isn’t as unique as it would have been several years ago.
Gandolfini is an actor I have a ton of respect for — there are few actors who are as emotionally expressive as he is — so it’s always great to watch him in an intimate drama like this. Yet the material really doesn’t rise above what you might see in a TV movie drama, which relates to writer Sandra Jennings‘ background (her writing credits consist solely of early 1990s TV movies). This is also the first film directed Harold Guskin, who has primarily served as acting coach on films like Taking Woodstock. I am sure he deserves the credit for the movie’s acting being its highlight, but again the movie’s story really lacks punch, especially since the drama all wraps up way too conveniently.
As a result, Down the Shore is really just for Gandolfini fans or those who have an attachment to films shot in New Jersey. I can’t imagine it appealing to audiences beyond that, which is probably why it never got a wide theatrical release.
Rating: A fairly pedestrian movie that can at least boast some strong performances (4.5/10).
Down the Shore will have a limited theatrical release beginning April 5 and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on April 9.