'Stuck': Film Review

Courtesy of Sicily Publicity
Off-key.
4/19/2019

Giancarlo Esposito, Ashanti and Amy Madigan appear in Michael Berry's musical about six New Yorkers who express their feelings in song while stranded in a subway car.

Being a lifelong New Yorker, I can attest that I've had the experience of being stranded on a non-moving subway train with random strangers far too often. Fortunately, in all the times that's happened, none of us have ever had the impulse to break into song. Would that the characters in Michael Berry's film musical had shown similar restraint.

True to its not exactly lyrical title, Stuck presents us with six characters, so carefully disparate in terms of race and ethnicity that they could be appearing in a Benetton ad, who become, duh, stuck on an underground subway train that's been stopped for a "police emergency." One of the film's many absurdities is that, despite the action taking place in the middle of the day, the train features only six passengers instead of being the tightly packed sardine can that now passes for the mass transit experience.

The hapless group includes Lloyd (Giancarlo Esposito), the sort of whimsical, wisdom-spouting homeless man who only exists in bad movies. Toting a garbage can on wheels that he uses as his all-purpose storage locker, Lloyd carefully attends to his hygiene needs, including clipping his toenails, brushing his teeth and shaving. When he's not grooming himself impeccably, he recites Shakespeare to his fellow passengers. As he grandiosely describes it, "I bring a measure of grace to the world."

Ramon (Omar Chaparro) is a Hispanic construction worker worried that he'll lose his job, convinced that his boss won't accept any excuse for being late. Eve (Ashanti) is an African-American woman whose simmering anger becomes understandable when we learn about the serious personal issue she's dealing with. Alicia (Arden Cho) is a young Korean dancer who's seemingly being stalked by Caleb (Gerard Canonico), a nerdy, white comic book artist. And Sue (Amy Madigan) is an older university music professor still grieving over a tragic loss.

Most of the claustrophobic action takes place on the subway car, although we're introduced to several of the characters in external settings. The musical numbers occasionally feature flashbacks depicting the events being sung about, resembling glossy musical videos intended for Hallmark Channel.

It's not surprising that the film is based on an off-Broadway musical (written by Riley Thomas and featuring music and lyrics by Thomas, Tim Young and Ben Maughan), since the proceedings have the stilted, stagey quality of bad theater. The dialogue feels forced and programmatic; when Ramon reveals that he's an immigrant, it naturally leads to heated arguments among the group about immigration and race relations. The subway car lights going out becomes a song cue, with the performers launching into a musical number illuminated only by their cellphones. When one of the characters is forced to relieve herself on the train, it naturally leads to, you guessed it, another song. The resulting number features scat vocalizing, since the songwriters were apparently hard-pressed to come up with suitable lyrics about urination.

"You need to stop listening with your ears, boy!" Lloyd advises Caleb at one point. The advice should be heeded by viewers as well, since the unmemorable songs feature the sort of overly explanatory, melodramatic lyrics that tell us exactly what we're supposed to be thinking and feeling. The performers do everything they can to sell them, and at times come close to succeeding. It's not surprising that Esposito, with his extensive theatrical experience, or Ashanti, a chart-topping pop singer, would put their songs over. But who knew that Amy Madigan had such a good voice? Unfortunately, their strenuous efforts (and Esposito tries very, very hard) aren't enough to lift the material above abject hokeyness. This is a film that makes subway riding seem such a miserable experience, you suspect it's been bankrolled by Uber.

Production companies: MJW Films, Little Eagle Productions
Distributor: Eamon Films
Cast: Ashanti, Amy Madigan, Arden Cho, Giancarlo Esposito, Omar Chaparro, Gerard Canonico
Director-screenwriter: Michael Berry
Producers: Mike Witherell, Joe Mundo
Executive producers: Kevin Hearst, Ashanti, LeAnn Goff, Gohn Glassgow, Aaron Klusman, Michael Kvamme, Megan Kvamme, Douglas Chin, Robert S. Parks
Director of photography: Luke Geissbuhler
Production designer: Maggie Ruder
Editors: Jimmy Hill, Elisa Cohen, Lucy Donaldson
Costume designer: Rebecca Luke
Composers: Riley Thomas, Tim Young, Ben Manughan
Casting: Donna DeSeta

83 minutes