On the first season of HBO's Project GreenlightBen Affleck, Matt Damon, and Chris Moore's engrossing reality-TV contest about making a million-dollar moviethe competition was whittled down to two unknown writer-directors. The conservative choice was Pete Jones' Stolen Summer, a conventional nostalgia piece that the judging panel worried (with good cause, it turned out) might lapse into afterschool-special material. The chancier prospect was Brendan Murphy's Speakeasy, an "arty" drama about a magician and a pawnbroker whose friendship is bound in Krzysztof Kieslowski-like coincidence. In what seemed at the time like a battle for the soul of Miramax, which agreed to release the contest winner's finished product, Jones came out on top, but the real winner may have been Murphy, who was allowed to make his movie outside the Project Greenlight spotlight and its accompanying commercial pressures.
Now quietly shuffled to DVD three years after Project Greenlight launched, Speakeasy turns out to be more like Stolen Summer than its champions envisioned, which can either be blamed on Murphy's novice direction or on meddling from the middlebrows at Miramax. Too bad there was no reality show to document the production, since the behind-the-scenes battles were presumably more dramatic than the tepid nothingness that eventually limped onto the screen. Needless to say, the finished product alleviates any worries the studio suits originally had about the film being too arty.
Working outside the demand for a name cast, Murphy assembled such a fine group of unsung character actors that it's a miracle Speakeasy turned out as awkwardly as it did. In a rare lead role, at least outside John Sayles' filmography, David Strathairn stars as a professional magician who bankrolls his more ambitious showcases by performing at children's parties. After crashing into a truck at an intersection, Strathairn strikes up an unlikely friendship with the driver, Nicky Katt, a young pawnbroker who restores music boxes in his spare time. Meanwhile, Strathairn's dissatisfied wife Stacy Edwards starts spending time with old high-school acquaintance Christopher McDonald, a creepy psychologist who considers her problems with a vulture's eagerness. The main sticking point in Strathairn and Edwards' marriage is her estrangement from her father Arthur Hiller, an aging deaf man who recently lost his 53-year post cleaning coins for a once-great Los Angeles hotel.
All these plot strands connect to a prologue in a Prohibition-era "hush house," but battered and bruised at a mere 86 minutes, Speakeasy can't attend to any one of them for too long. Like many Kieslowski imitators, Murphy yokes his characters together on a series of conveniently timed coincidences, but falls victim to the sentimental preciousness that only Kieslowski seemed capable of avoiding. Yet the problem with Speakeasy is more fundamental: Where's the drama? The only real signs of conflict are between Strathairn and Edwards, but that's expressed mostly in strained silences in bed and at the dinner table. Without anything at stake, the film just lies inert, bleeding from the post-production wounds that have become Project Greenlight's ironic signature.