The Hungry Ghosts -- Film Review

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It's the ghost of Cassavetes that hangs most heavily over "The Hungry Ghosts," actor Michael Imperioli's debut feature. Having corralled several of his former "Sopranos" castmates for this exercise in world-weary existentialism, the filmmaker delivers an earnest effort that too often betrays its good intentions with an overly heavy hand.

The all-too-portentous title refers to the multiple characters in this tale about several New Yorkers attempting to cope with spiritual crises during the course of a fateful 36 hours. They include Frank (Steven R. Schirripa), a late-night radio talk-show host with several serious addictions, including gambling, food, alcohol and cocaine; his estranged teenage son, Matthew (Emory Cohen), who attempts to cope with his anger by resorting to casual sex with a thrill-seeking couple and a halfhearted suicide attempt; his ex-wife, Sharon (Sharon Angela), furious over Frank's irresponsibility; Nadia (Aunjanue Ellis), a sharp-talking young woman in financial straits; and Gus (Nick Sandow), her philosophical ex-boyfriend just out of rehab, who desperately attempts to reconnect with her.

The vignette-style screenplay has a contrived, theatrical feel, with the characters often delivering the sort of explicitly meaningful monologues that no doubt would resonate better onstage. (Indeed, most of the performers in the film are veterans of Studio Dante, the chamber-sized off-Broadway theater that Imperioli ran with wife Victoria for several years.)

The film is best appreciated as an actors' exercise, allowing such normally supporting thesps as Schirripa and Sandow to showcase their impressive chops. The former is particularly impressive, providing welcome doses of humor to his characterization that help alleviate the oppressiveness of the proceedings. He and Ellis display a relaxed chemistry in their scenes together, especially in a comic episode in which the painfully out-of-shape Frank awkwardly joins her yoga class.

Opens: Friday, Oct. 1 (Virgil Films)
Production: Cicala Filmworks, TMT Entertainment Group
Cast: Steven R. Schirripa, Aunjanue Ellis, Nick Sandow, Sharon Angela, Emory Cohen, Jim Hendricks, Paul Calderon, John Ventimiglia, Jerry Grayson, Angelica Torn
Director-screenwriter: Michael Imperioli
Producers: Stefan C. Schaefer, Diane Crespo, Tina Thor, Howard Axel
Executive producers: Joe Scarpinito, Joe Laurita
Director of photography: Dan Hersey
Editor: Erin Greenwell
Music: Elijah Amitin, La Dolce Vita
Production designer: Victoria Imperioli
Costume designer: Beth Kelleher
Rated R, 106 minutes
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