There have been few first features in recent years as charming as Adam Leon’s “Gimme the Loot,” and now that quality is starting to look like a motif. “Tramps,” Leon’s follow-up to his prize-winning debut, delivers another brisk and scrappy tale of lovable young hooligans on the cusp of a busy inner city world and searching for their place within it. “Tramps” doesn’t break new ground or offer much in the way of surprise developments; its cutesy setup adheres to familiar rules. At the same time, Leon’s sophomore effort has more polish to its entertainment value, matched by playful energy indicative of a mature storyteller in tune with his material. It’s certainly one of the better American romcoms in recent memory, although the competition’s not especially fierce.
Leon’s a knowledgable cineaste who draws from the right stuff with the shrewd hand of a young New Wave director: “Tramps” has the setting of Rossellini-esque neorealism and a classic Hitchcockian twist; the romantic centerpiece hails from the screwball comedy era. At its center, Polish-American New Yorker Danny (British actor Callum Turner, his accent well-modified for the part) leads a hand-to-mouth existence with his mother and troublemaking older sibling Darren (Michal Vondel). When Darren lands in jail for the night after another one of his random antics, he uses his one phone call to put his brother on the spot: Danny’s tasked with handing off a briefcase full of cash at a random Manhattan subway stop.
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Anyone familiar with briefcases at the movies know they’re usually just there to animate some other dimension of the story. In this case, it’s a classic MacGuffin scenario that sets in the play the far more engaging dynamic to come. The exchange, set in motion by a no-good street hustler (Mike Birbiglia, amusingly cast against type in a bit part), finds Danny taken to the subway exchange by a young driver named Ellie (Grace Van Patten in a breakthrough performance). Humorless and remote, she tries to get through the proceedings in a businesslike fashion — but that all changes in an instance when Danny screws things up by grabbing the wrong bag and losing his money in the process. Holding a stranger’s purse, he finds an address. Time is ticking as the pair join forces to track down the missing goods.
That twist, expertly carried out against the city backdrop with comic suspense, finds the pair of unwitting young accomplices riding the Metro North upstate and wandering suburbia in the hopes of reclaiming the money. In the process, they get to know each other. While Danny casually flirts and jokes around, Ellie eventually reveals her personal woes: Previously employed by a strip club in Pittsburg, she just wants to get the money back and reassemble her broken life. As they wander the posh, tranquil upper-class neighborhood looking for the cash, the setting provides them with an ideal contrast to the limited resources that define both of their lives — and thus the ideal mechanism to enhance their chemistry. Observing the palatial homes on each homogenized block, Danny observes, “the whole point of being out here is that they don’t have to worry about people like us.”
As the couple spend the night sleeping in a shed, then head back to the city streets for a final confrontation, “Tramps” gives them plenty of excuses to get acquainted — and therein lies the movie’s main appeal. Leon sets the ramshackle plot to a mixture of jazz and bluegrass tunes, and the actors bring a similar ebullience to their parts. The lanky Turner has the bravado of a young Brando that’s only tempered by his disarming wit; Van Patten’s intensity suggests the early stages of a powerful screen presence coming together in real time. As a two-hander, “Tramps” provides a masterclass in screen chemistry.
Inevitably, the meager plot can’t keep up. Having established such an electric pair, “Tramps” doesn’t quite know what to do with them beyond the initial setup. Once the briefcase variable falls by the wayside, the movie fades into inconsequential feuds about the would-be couples’ future prospects, and it ends with a feel-good shrug. But that same anything-goes spirit makes it possible to experience these freewheeling characters’ unstable world, and the appealing possibility that they’re better off experiencing it together. It’s the same attribute that made Leon’s “Gimme the Loot” so endearing, and at a time when American romantic comedies aim for broad humor and questionable gender politics, provides a more intimate contrast to the market standard. If romantic comedies need a savior, Leon may be their best hope.
“Tramps” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.