Never Falling Through the Ice

Allan Mindel features Troy Garity in the role of an inevitable tortoise

In the film “Milwaukee, Minnesota,” Troy Garity plays Albert Burroughs, a mentally retarded young man adept at following the myriad rules his overprotective mother (Debra Monk) doles out. As a result, Albert never goes too far from home but he demonstrates an extraordinary talent for winning high-paying ice-fishing tournaments, which involves his knack for “talking to the fish.”

Garity resembles a young Dustin Hoffman; in fact, when his character repeats his mother’s rules to himself, Garity seems to be channeling the older actor’s “Rainman” vocal stylings.

Albert’s mother dies in a hit-and-run car accident, after which he falls prey to a brother-sister team of con artists, Stan and Tuey (Hank Harris and Alison Folland). Stan pretends to be dying of cancer, while his sister talks a good media rap—“Retarded orphan wins fishing tournament! People just love that!” Tuey is pretty enough to make Albert forget his mother’s admonition not to stare at girls; the woman mesmerizes him.

Jerry James (Randy Quaid) arrives on the scene to announce he is Albert’s long-lost father, and the young man, inherently kind and compliant, does not resist the intrusion. Albert gradually becomes disturbed, however, as Jerry starts rummaging through the house in search of all the money Albert has won ice fishing.

Hollywood often insists on endowing people with disabilities with some extraordinary special quality, as if to compensate for their more prosaic disadvantages. In “Rainman,” the autistic Raymond was able to calculate numbers mentally with disarming accuracy. The title character of “Forrest Gump” was presented with an unknown, but unmistakable malady, but also the ability to follow orders to the nth degree and achieve uncanny successes. Among the most famous of the “fool” variety of disabled characters is the Emperor Claudius, who, in the television mini-series “I, Claudius,” was hobbled by a bad ankle and a stammer but sat patiently and wisely behind his perceived “idiocy” and charted a path to become the fourth potentate of ancient Rome.

Albert fits comfortably in this tradition of heroes with limitations that marginalize them but nonetheless have that something extra that sets them above as well as apart.

The story unfolds slowly and follows the sure-to-succeed tortoise that Albert surely is. It is unpleasant to watch two people conning a retarded young man, and a group of five people left simultaneously during my screening, perhaps due to that or maybe because of the film’s pace. In time, Tuey comes to a change of heart about Albert and becomes protective of him against the predatory efforts by a red-faced Jerry (read Devil), who makes his biggest mistake by assuming that Albert is merely stupid. If the young man learned anything from his late mother it is that his home is his fortress and that lesson serves him well.

While story elements such as the transvestite hooker and her silk-stockinged pimp (Josh Brolin) seem gratuitous, the film’s major performances are strong. Quaid manages to be evil and look evil without his portrayal going over the top. Bruce Dern, as Mr. McNally, Albert’s one-time boss at a copy shop, cuts an appropriately disheveled figure. But Garity and Folland turn in the strongest performances and the growth in their relationship is a bright spot in the movie.

Despite a deliberate plot, director Allen Mindel keeps his camera work interesting, showing us his characters mostly in close-up, so you get to know them, and using long shots to dramatic advantage more sparingly. Mindel lights Quaid in such a way that his shadow reveals a hunchback.

Some will see “Milwaukee” as another movie of the wise fool who outwits his opponents despite his disabilities, but the film is more about people who get burned by unduly low expectations of those who are different. Albert is not necessarily smarter than his tormentors here; he is able to wisely keep his mouth shut and let them sabotage themselves despite their best machinations.

“Milwaukee, Minnesota” is a slow film and it’s not meant for everyone, but if you hang in, you will be awed by the experience, particularly the final shot which is breathtaking and perfect for the more contemplative moviegoer.

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