A crowd-pleaser for the AARP set, Robert Davi's writing and directing debut The Dukes casts an affectionate eye on a little-explored milieu that's simultaneously mundane and rife with faded glamour. Davi and Chazz Palminteri play members of the eponymous doo-wop group, retro mirth-makers whose glory days have faded into distant memory. The two now toil in a restaurant for their brassy Italian stereotype of an aunt (Miriam Margolyes) and pine for better days and a solution to their seemingly permanent cash-flow crises.
The harmonizers turn small-time crooks when they decide to steal a shipment of gold from dentists, with some help from good buddies Elya Baskin, a laid-off airline mechanic; corpulent stand-up comedian Frank D'Amico; and safecracker Bruce Weitz. An underutilized Peter Bogdanovich co-stars as the group's sad-eyed manager, a Willy Loman type who struggles even to land the group degrading gigs in ridiculous costumes.
Considering the film's pedigree, it's no surprise that it works best as an actors' showcase. The Dukes is never stronger than in an early scene where the overgrown boys kibbitz affably while enjoying a nosh, and the roving camera drinks in the lived-in camaraderie of old friends shooting the breeze. Davi obviously has enormous affection for his down-and-out characters, but the film's soft-heartedness turns maudlin well before Margolyes delivers a schmaltzy speech about The Dukes' music filling the soul with angels. The Dukes' heist element feels a little halfhearted, perhaps deservedly so, considering the ultimate outcome of their larcenous endeavors. And Davi's central motivation reeks of Screenwriting 101—he's too proud to let the dentist boyfriend of his ex-wife Melora Hardin fix his beloved son's teeth. The Dukes could use more music and less sap, but it's refreshing to see a film about the problems of working-class men on the far side of middle age, struggling just to get by. Don't baby boomers aging into their golden years deserve formulaic entertainment all their own?