There’s not much new ground covered in Jon Abrahams’ amiable “Clover,” which stuffs a slew of familiar character tropes — bickering Irish brothers, nattily-dressed mafia types, hardened guns-for-hire — into an overcooked crime caper that’s less about evil deeds and more about the people who do them. Yet Abrahams, who also stars in the film, has at least one thing down for his sophomore turn behind the camera: top-notch casting, the kind that can spice up even the blandest of projects. Fortunately for the fledgling filmmaker, “Clover” is populated almost exclusively with a motley assortment of characters, the kind that can temporarily distract from a been-there, done-that script.
Abrahams and fellow multi-hyphenate Mark Webber star as a pair of down-on-their-luck Buffalo brothers, in debt to a local mobster (Chazz Palminteri — see? this thing practically casts itself) who cooks up a harsh plan for them to start chipping away at what they owe. It involves roughing up some other debtors, and turning tail on the other low-lives that skulk around the same shady places they too skulk around. That’s a tough ask for anyone but a particularly brutal one for the Callahans, who happen to be nice guys underneath all that bad luck. It doesn’t go the way they hoped, and soon Mickey (Abrahams) and Jackie (Webber) are on the run from the mob and saddled with the only slightly ruffled teenage daughter Clover (Nicole Elizabeth Berger) of their mark, who they definitely did not kill but is still very much dead.
What follows is a shaggy adventure around Buffalo, complete with still more shady places to visit and more strange characters to meet. Despite a meandering plot — early glimpses of zippy energy run dry within the opening credits — that stretches the film’s 100-minute running time to its breaking point, Abrahams has an eye for the finer points of filmmaking. The film’s production design is stellar (this is a film that takes place in plenty of dank local bars and their murky back rooms, and actually looks like it, not some soulless set) and its constantly updating cast of characters never fall into cliche.
Given how many stars pop up in “Clover,” it would be easy to do just that, too. This is a film that opens with Ron Perlman screaming it up (a compliment, truly) as a pissed-off pal of Donald Trump and doesn’t introduce Erika Christensen and Julia Jones as a romantically entangled mercenary duo hot on the Callahans’ trail until the halfway mark. It’s those casting choices that power it through a limp middle act to an increasingly convoluted finale.
Screenwriter Michael Testone previously wrote Abrahams’ directorial debut, the very different drama “All At Once” that was also, funnily enough, set in Buffalo and included roles for Abrahams, Christensen, and Berger. Here, the writer-director pair struggle to maintain a consistent tone for the film. Character touches lean towards the comedic (particularly when it comes to Mickey and Jackie’s goofy relationship), but dramatic narrative elements (and plenty of bloody violence) hint at a more hard-hitting story underneath.
But “Clover” is at its best when it leans into its more silly side, playing up the ludicrousness of many of its twists alongside a cast that’s not interested in winking at them or going for the easiest of laughs. While it often feels as if Testone’s screenplay doles out said twists just to keep the film lurching forward, it does offer at least one very good one (and clears up any confusion about why the film is named after Berger’s character) that should have been introduced much earlier, all the better to power the film’s kinky sense of right and wrong.
It’s that twist that reorients the entire film, ratcheting up the humor, finding fresh reasons for the existence of its seemingly endless parade of wacky new characters, and offering up a worldview not so readily apparent throughout the rest of its running time. It’s a good twist, but one that, had it been wedged into a lackadaisical script even 20 pages earlier, could have turned the caper into something even luckier.
A Freestyle Digital Media Release, “Clover” hits VOD and digital on Friday, April 3.