'Cabaret Maxime': Film Review

Courtesy of BA Filmes
'Sopranos' actors reunite for a very different sort of underworld tale.
2/21/2020

Michael Imperioli plays the owner of an endangered nightclub in Bruno de Almeida's vibe-heavy drama.

Nearly all mood, Bruno de Almeida's Cabaret Maxime revels in an imaginary world where a self-possessed man might turn a modest profit for years in a nightclub of the sort that today's burlesque revivalists pine for: a sexy but not crass cabaret where fan dancers and whip-cracking dames might trade stage time with novelty acts involving wild animals or little people. Michael Imperioli's character fits nicely into this vision, the calm overseer of an operation courting chaos from within and without. But viewers expecting a plot-driven crime pic, like the gangster tales for which he and co-stars like David Proval are known, may be flummoxed.

Imperioli plays Bennie, one of many nightclub owners in a fictitious city that looks an awful lot like Lisbon but is inhabited only by English-speakers. (Aside from disdainful references to techno, the movie mostly ignores the contemporary world and sticks to streets where only the marquees have changed for the last half-century or so.) Even in this time-warp, though, his eponymous club is uniquely unconstrained by fashion. Maxime's comic-cum-emcee Veebie (John Ventimiglia) draws comparisons to Mae West and dresses like The Tramp; its dancers seem more interested in getting their lip-sync right than in bilking the club's clients for tips.

DP Lisa Rinzler revels in shadows and bold compositions here, and takes special pleasure in framing Imperioli, whose long graying hair and beard suggest a man who is completely at ease with middle age. Surrounded by half-naked women, he's devoted to a wife who fears she's past her prime: Stella (Ana Padrao), also in her fifties, continues to command Maxime's stage, but has suffered breakdowns in the past and fuels her constant self-doubt with booze.

Stella's sanity isn't Bennie's biggest concern at the moment. A man named Gus (Proval) appears to own all or most of the property in this entertainment district, and expects his tenants to cooperate in his mobby schemes — like selling counterfeit spirits at their bars. A trio of entrepreneurs are taking over one of Gus' properties, pumping techno and pimping their strippers; Gus strongly suggests that Bennie should follow their lead. "Times change" is a familiar refrain here. Bennie doesn't believe in this kind of progress; the only question is what form his resistance will take.

A screenplay written by the director with John Frey indulges actors without feeling much need to generate dramatic tension, but for the most part de Almeida makes this world credible on its own terms. He's so taken with casual gossip between barmen — can you believe the Drano Gus is trying to pass off as whiskey these days?! — that viewers may be taken aback when the film's criminals actually start to behave like gangsters, burning clubs down and hinting that a similar fate may soon befall the Maxime.

The pic cops some very familiar moves once Bennie is forced to act, pairing violence with transcendent ritual in a cross-cutting sequence. (Where other mob movies used Catholic rites as counterpoint for gunplay, this one favors a dancer's backside and frantic congas.) But genre conventions are a formality here, as de Almeida gravitates reliably back to the places where nightlife professionals spend their downtime together, swapping stories about the past while welcoming those who've been mistreated by changing times.

Production company: BA Filmes
Distributor: Giant Pictures
Cast: Michael Imperioli, Ana Padrao, John Ventimiglia, David Proval, Nick Sandow, Manuel João Vieira, Drena de Niro, Mike Starr, Sharon Angela, John Frey, Artur Nascarella, Suzie Peterson, Selma Uamusse
Director: Bruno de Almeida
Screenwriters: Bruno de Almeida, John Frey
Producers: Bruno de Almeida, Michael Imperioli, Jason Kilot
Director of photography: Lisa Rinzler
Production designer: Joao Torres
Costume designers: Silvia Grabowski, Miss Suzie
Editors: Bruno de Almeida, Pedro Ribeiro
Composer: Manuel Joao Vieira
Casting director: Cindy Tolan

96 minutes