01/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Doesn't Kill You

What Doesn't Kill You

Director: Brian Goodman

Year: 2008

Leads: Mark Ruffalo, Ethan Hawke, Amanda Peet

Classification: Crime Drama

Rating: **

Makes you blander? Writer/director/life story supplier Brian Goodman probably should have avoided the statement/question route when titling his freshman effort, but instead has joined the ranks of movies that you can't quite remember (Any Which Way but Loose, The Whole Nine Yards, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, What Just Happened?, How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog, You Don't Mess with the Zohan, and plenty of others I can't quite recall at the moment). Goodman's tale of petty crimes and consequences set in South Boston come across as a pale shadow of Goodfellas (in other words, the Boston version of Goodfellas), that strives for authenticity, and unfortunately captures the uninteresting truth.

What Doesn't Kill You makes damn sure you understand from the outset that the events you're about to witness actually happened to director Brian Goodman. In fact, the main character is named Brian, played by Mark Ruffalo (Zodiac, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Ruffalo, an actor I generally find chameleonic, finds himself without much of anything to disappear into, given the thin and generally clichéd nature of the material. Instead we get a blank slate, slack faced version of the actor, which starts out bland, but gradually dredges up a few interesting dramatic resources for a man without much of anything going on internally. Brian's best friend and partner in crime is Paulie, played by Ethan Hawke (Before Sunset, Gattaca), a thick-skulled thug with good-natured loyalty for Brian and narrow life ambitions. Hawke commits to the role, and comes off mostly authentically, but I couldn't shake the impression that I was watching Johnny Drama from Entourage playing a "serious" role in a fictitious movie.

The film follows the two men's semi-impoverished lives as they commit petty crimes, such as stealing carpet rolls off the back of a truck and kidnapping dogs, for small paychecks and little respect from local crime boss Pat Kelly, played by Goodman. Paulie gripes about their dead-end lifestyle as it becomes clearer and clearer that they'll never advance in the criminal world as-is. Brian passively agrees, and seems willing to do just about anything to stay away from his wife, played by Amanda Peet (The Whole Nine Yards, coincidence?) with surprising trashy South Boston believability, and his two kids. The two men start operating on their own, robbing drug-dealers, and generally act likes assholes to everyone as Pat gets irritated, Paulie gets cocky, and Brian gets hopelessly addicted to booze and crack cocaine.

Which is a problem. What I had hoped to be the bleak tale of two untalented criminal bozos who resort to increasingly outlandish crimes, perhaps stealing Christmas trees or robbing collection plates, turns into a turgid tale of drugs and redemption. Brian, abruptly and somewhat ludicrously addicted to crack, loses his edge. One unintentionally amusing scene finds Brian, escaped from the hospital, squatting in a grimy den in his gown, smoking crack with an open bullet wound in the back of his head. At that point, I was hoping the movie would just keep on getting ridiculous to shake off the deadly generic quality of its crime movie plotting and dialogue. But no, Brian and Paulie get busted and then it's abruptly off to prison. And then its abruptly back from prison, and a sober Brian must wrestle his hard-knock life for his very soul as Paulie plans a bold armored car robbery.

And that's about it. The rest of the film rolls off the line with little energy or suspense. The film's one through line, an attention-grabbing opening scene that depicts most of the future armored car delivery, ends up as a mildly baffling tease; it's a dream scene Brian has on the eve of the robbery, which we never actually see. This might be a first in film history, bookmarking a movie with a future event that turns out to be completely imaginary. It almost works in a strange, I-can't-believe-they-pulled-that sort of way, but nothing else about the production shows any evidence that What Doesn't Kill You has the brains or chutzpah to intentionally try a formal experiment.

The film saves itself from outright badness via its generally steady direction and surprisingly tactile visuals. The on-location South Boston photography looks great, and helps evoke a grey sense of doom and oppression that the rest of the movie lacks. Ruffalo gives it his all, and does end up conjuring an interesting portrait of a mediocre man struggling with predicable demons, particularly in a short but well-observed scene following his release from prison where he breaks the physical ice with his wife. Overall though, the obvious comparisons to Goodfellas do not do help What Doesn't Kill You one bit. There's actually a scene where, having hit hard times, Brian goes to his old crime boss for financial aid, and receives an insulting small handout. I don't doubt that this, and many other events in the movie, took place in Brian Goodman's real-life struggle, but his film would have benefited from a healthy dose of creative liberty.