Title: Downtown Express
Director: David Grubin
Starring: Philippe Quint, Nellie McKay, Michael Cumpsty, Ashley Springer, Carolyn McCormick
An old-fashioned, squarely sentimental immigrants’ tale that marries a familiar story of generational rebellion to the New York hipster fusion music scene, director David Grubin’s “Downtown Express” is a wide-eyed if not particularly adroit charmer. If its awkward cycling through various stodgy subplots and general lack of a more starkly defined contrast and stakes mark it as somewhat lazy and functional on a narrative level, its relative freshness of setting — as well as the fact that its music absolutely sings — makes the movie a marginal recommendation for those with an interest in musically-focused cinema.
The story centers on Russian émigrés trying to establish roots in the Big Apple via their passion for classical music. The tremendously talented Sasha (Philippe Quint) plays subways with his father Vadim (Michael Cumpsty) and cousin Arkady (Ashley Springer), and stands on the precipice of a formal recital meant to launch his career. Faced with expired and expiring visas, they don’t have much time to make things happen. When Sasha meets singer-songwriter Ramona (real-life singer-songwriter Nellie McKay, sporting a nondescript accent), he’s more than a bit smitten, and lobbies — eventually successfully — to join her band. Vadim, meanwhile, develops a relationship with Sasha’s teacher, Marie (Carolyn McCormick). As the date of his big recital approaches, Sasha finds himself pulled between two worlds.
The script, penned by Kathleen Cahill from a story by she and Grubin, leans heavily on the naturalistic charms of its cast, and, of course, its music. Based on a description of the plot, one could reasonably expect a love story, along with lots of “I don’t want your life!”-type declarations of independence. But the movie isn’t really romantic — there’s but one montage of nominal amorous connection — and the tension or conflict between Sasha and Vadim is mostly of a shruggingly peddled low-key variety. It’s almost as if the filmmakers got tired of their own story and trajectories of the characters about one-third of the way in. Grubin also shows himself to be a sloppy technical filmmaker in some respects — the music is solidly captured, but certain stagings are awkward and other bits don’t match (Sasha and Ramona meet up in a street scene and head off directly to play on a subway platform, and then arrive wearing different clothes).
The easygoing performances and toe-tapping buoyancy of the tunes mitigate this somewhat, however. Even if the film doesn’t quite fully tap into McKay’s goofy charm, which is ample, the talent of she and Grammy nominee Quint make “Downtown Express” a flitting, pleasant enough diversion, if one submits to its charms. It doesn’t reach the heights of “Once” or even the more experimental, exuberant “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” but arthouse boomer fans in particular will respond positively to the movie’s heart and soul.
NOTE: “Downtown Express” opens in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Town Center 5. For more information on the movie, visit www.DowntownExpressFilm.com.
Written by: Brent Simon