God is in the details: That’s what separates one coming-of-age story from another. The themes are usually similar, but a fresh coming-of-age tale gives us familiar material in a specific setting with specific characters. Despite the title of Outside Providence, its heart and soul is inside Providence — or, more accurately, Pawtucket. Rhode Island is the homeland and cinematic stomping grounds of three of our most promising filmmakers: writer-director Michael Corrente (Federal Hill, American Buffalo) and the brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary). Now the three have collaborated here, based on a 1988 book by Peter.
The movie is set in the early ’70s, but it has no political consciousness, no awareness of Watergate or Vietnam. Which only makes sense: it’s about a stoner teenager, Tim Dunphy (Shawn Hatosy), who has precious little knowledge of anything outside Providence. Tim and his friends don’t care about Nixon or the war; they just want to get baked and have fun, like the kids in Dazed and Confused. However, when Tim gets a little too baked and has a little too much fun one night, his irascible dad (Alec Baldwin) ships him off to a Connecticut prep school. “It’s to prepare you for not gettin’ your neck broke by me,” Old Man Dunphy clarifies.
Alec Baldwin doesn’t appear in much of the movie, but it’s only fair to take a time-out from discussing the main plot and revive my old theory that Baldwin has always been best as a supporting character actor, not a star. He sinks his teeth into this role, cutting against his glamour-boy looks to create a living, breathing man, hilarious in his fond contempt for his screw-up son (who probably reminds him of himself at that age), poignant in his grief over his departed wife. The role could be a cliché, but Baldwin, sitting in his grim living room eating ice cream out of the carton and watching some stupid variety show, turns Old Man Dunphy into someone we all know. If he doesn’t get an Oscar nod, the award is meaningless. [NOTE: He didn’t. Therefore the award is meaningless.]
But back to Tim, who has a tough time adjusting to life at the repressive prep school — until he finds another group of kids to get high with (the rich kids can afford better weed). He also meets a delicately beautiful student, Jane Weston (Amy Smart), and falls instantly in love with this initially unattainable princess, as all boys in C-of-A stories must do. A lot of the prep-school stuff in Outside Providence is standard anti-authority and drug humor, but it’s funny anyway, especially when a dean who resembles Mr. Whipple solemnly reads aloud a letter Tim has gotten from his friend back home, “Drugs” Delaney.
Outside Providence has been attacked by some critics for continuing the Farrellys’ alleged obsession with disability: Tim’s little brother (Tommy Bone) is in a wheelchair, and the family dog, “Clops,” has one eye and three legs. I don’t think the Farrellys mean us to laugh at “cripples” so much as to see the human comedy in the situation; I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that the Farrellys have some firsthand experience with disabled people and are familiar with the gallows humor that can make life a little more livable for such people.
The movie is probably a little softer and more Hollywoodized than it might have been before the Farrellys’ current success. In Peter Farrelly’s book, poor old Clops doesn’t make it past page 8; he kills one cat too many, so Old Man Dunphy slams a door on the mutt’s neck and snaps it. I don’t know who’s responsible for the change, but I’d like to think that Alec Baldwin didn’t read the script and say “Great screenplay, guys, but I’m not about to play a guy who breaks a crippled dog’s neck.” I also would like to think that Miramax didn’t say “Can we keep Clops? Audiences loved the dog in Mary.” Maybe Peter Farrelly just said “What the hell, let’s let the mutt live” out of genuine fondness for it. That fondness for all of the characters, however fucked-up (except maybe the jerks at the prep school), is what makes Outside Providence work.