Why isn't Jamey Sheridan a star? He's got that onscreen quality that commands attention, does work that's always interesting and has both talent and versatility.
Yet Handsome Harry, a vehicle that shows him to advantage, comes as a kind of revelation. It's the kind of breakout role that makes you ask: Why doesn't this guy get roles like this more often?
Provocative, poignant and sometimes problematic, Handsome Harry would seem to have timing on its side. With the continuing debate about the military's "don't ask/don't tell" policy, this story about characters looking back at a violent act of homophobia during their service years is obviously of the moment.
At the center of the story is Harry Sweeney (Sheridan), an electrician who owns his own business, apparently in upstate New York. He gets a call one night from an old Navy buddy, Thomas Kelly (Steve Buscemi), begging him to come visit him in the hospital.
Kelly, it turns out, is dying - and he's got a guilty conscience about an incident that happened when he and Harry were best friends in the Navy. It involves a third man, David Kagan, who Harry, Kelly and several other sailors drunkenly beat up one night. At some point in the skirmish, someone smashed Kagan's hand with a heavy piece of equipment, essentially crippling the appendage. Kelly fears that he did it and wants Harry to seek Kagan's forgiveness so he won't go to hell.
Kelly's daughter gives Harry a list of names and addresses of their old Navy gang and Harry hits the road to track them down and search their memories of the incident. Gradually it becomes clear that the attack stemmed from the discovery that Kagan was gay.
Writer-director Bette Gordon, working from Nicholas Proferes' script, can't quite control the film's leaps into melodrama during Harry's road trip. Each encounter with a familiar face (Aidan Quinn, John Savage, Titus Welliver) from Harry's past seems to have its own dramatic - or, more often, melodramatic - agenda. More often than not, those scenes feel contrived, overwritten. The various actors do the best with what they have - and they also have the solid, honest Sheridan to work with. What they don't have is strong writing.
Ultimately, this is Harry's journey, in more ways than one. And again, thankfully, the film has Sheridan as the understated Harry for its guide. Sheridan has a grizzled charisma, the kind of seasoning and depth of well-aged Scotch. When he finally does encounter Kagan, played with equal control, grace and just a tinge of emotional menace by Campbell Scott, their scene, though not particularly strongly written, speaks volumes about what they're feeling.
One other quibble about the film: Set in 2003, the film deals with events of 30 years earlier, which would place it in 1973. Yet the flashback scenes - particularly of Harry, Kagan and the others soaking up jazz at New York nightspots - seem to evoke a period 30 years earlier than that, in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The vicious homophobic assault around which the film is built makes a little more sense in that context, but then the time frame is wrong. (Not that I doubt for a moment that this kind of hatred existed in 1973 - or today, for that matter.)
While it jumps the rails at a couple of different points dramatically, Handsome Harry keeps winning you back because of Jamey Sheridan's performance. There's more to recommend the film than that, but that alone is reason enough to see it.