Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Stephen Lang, Burt Young, Peter Dobson, Jerry Orbach, Stephen Baldwin, Jason Andrews, James Lorinz, Sam Rockwell, Maia Danziger, Camille Saviola, Ricki Lake, Cameron Johann, John Costelloe, Christopher Murney
Written by: Desmond Nakano, based on the novel by Hubert Selby Jr.
Directed by: Uli Edel
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 102
Date: 10/12/1989

Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Exit' Wounds

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When Hubert Selby Jr.'s 1964 novel The Last Exit to Brooklyn first hit shelves, it was considered pornography. The novel and the movie do indeed ooze sex, but they do not titillate. The sex here is just another form of pain, denial and loss.

Uli Edel's (Christiane F, Body of Evidence) film version of The Last Exit to Brooklyn, made in 1989 and released in 1990, did not stick around for long and has been fairly difficult to see ever since. The Roxie now revives the movie with a very nice archive print. It plays through Saturday.

Perhaps after the recent successful adaptation of another Selby novel, Requiem for a Dream, we're ready for it.

Set in 1952, Last Exit does not give us a colorful suburban view of the 1950s like Far from Heaven, nor does it have a soda-jerk, juke-box nostalgia like American Graffiti. This is Brookyln before rock 'n' roll. The buildings have a peeling grayness, as if some forgotten battle had been waged there, pockmarked and dulled everything in its wake, then disappeared.

The survivors can do little more than just get by. A crippling strike has been going on for some six months and workers like Big Joe (Burt Young) don't know what to do. Lucky Harry Black (Stephen Lang), though, has been placed in charge of the strike office and given a generous expense account that buys beer and whatever else his heart desires.

Harry's not happy at home; he doesn't get along with his wife and doesn't seem to understand his baby child. But when a drag queen saunters by the office one night, and Harry's gaze follows, we understand why.

At the same time, the neighborhood tramp Tralala (the always superb Jennifer Jason Leigh) has been making a living by luring suckers to the junkyard with the promise of oral sex, only to have her friends jump him and steal his money. Soon she discovers that befriending lonely soldiers on leave is a better way to go; she'll be treated like a queen for a few days, maybe pick up some new clothes and a little cash on the side.

Though both Harry and Tralala enjoy their brief salad days, both money and love dry up and all that's left is sex -- but the very dregs of sex, the very worst sex has to offer.

After drinking herself senseless, Tralala invites dozens of men in a bar to have sex with her; they pound on her until the girl underneath the blood and bruises is unrecognizable. And distraught Harry tries to hit on a young boy and finds himself beaten and humiliated by the boy's older brother and his friends.

As we know from Requiem for a Dream, Selby delights in watching parallel characters careen toward their downfalls simultaneously, but Last Exit contains a couple hopeful storylines. When Big Joe's daughter (Ricki Lake) becomes pregnant, his first impulse is to beat the guy who did it to a pulp. So is his second impulse. But eventually, we see their faces and we're left with the promise that happiness might not be so unattainable after all.

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