|Will Arnett plays a funeral director in "On Broadway," set in Boston.|
The heart of "On Broadway" is in the right place. But when the story behind a film is more interesting than what's on the screen, that's a problem.
Writer, director, and Boston native Dave McLaughlin wrote a play called "God Willing" and staged it in the back room of The Burren pub in Somerville's Davis Square. The play reflected McLaughlin's Irish heritage and celebrated his connection to family through rituals, especially the classic Irish wake. McLaughlin then turned the journey of writing and producing the play into "On Broadway" - a reference to the fictional address of the pub where the play is staged and the dream destination of every playwright - tapping lots of Boston-area natives to pitch in, both on and offscreen.
Having seen "God Willing" when it premiered at The Burren, I couldn't help but want to root for this film. The opportunity to see Boston shot through the eyes of people who grew up here, as well as watching many local stage actors (including Nancy E. Carroll, Annette Miller, and Kortney Adams) deliver finely tuned performances has built-in appeal. But "On Broadway" has a linear structure that plods along to a disappointingly anticlimactic ending.
The story follows Jack O'Toole (Joey McIntyre), a carpenter whose life is changed by the death of his uncle. Although he has no experience, Jack decides to write a play called "God Willing" and enlists his friends and family to help with the production. Opportunities for subplots and shenanigans abound, and the movie perks up with hilarious auditions (with cameos from Boston-area actors M. Lynda Robinson and Judith McIntyre), nutty dancing and vocalizing from an actress in the play (the scene-stealing Dossy Peabody) and a brilliant comic moment when a funeral director (Will Arnett of "Arrested Development") takes charge of the actors' makeup. But there aren't enough of these moments to keep our attention, and McLaughlin's unwillingness to stray from stereotype (Jack's father is bitter and uncommunicative, Jack's wife Kate is a saint) prevents the film from feeling very original.
McLaughlin does get some impressive performances from his cast, especially McIntyre, who underplays the crusading Jack, managing to give him a charming sense of humility and sincerity that never feels forced. Eliza Dushku is also compelling as the over-eager actress with a weak spot for good-looking guys, but she shines most in her scenes with Lucas Caleb Rooney, who portrays Jack's goofy friend, Neil.
Despite the abundance of Boston natives on hand, most of the location shots, including Copley Square and the view from the Longfellow Bridge, seem oddly generic. Ultimately, "On Broadway's" inability to dig below the surface of the story or the characters means it never offers more than a superficial view of Boston and the people who call it home.