Review: ‘Clover,’ starring Mark Webber, Jon Abrahams, Nicole Elizabeth Berger, Chazz Palminteri, Tichina Arnold, Erika Christensen and Julia Jones

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Nicole Elizabeth Berger, Jon Abrahams and Mark Webber in “Clover” (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)

“Clover”

Directed by Jon Abrahams

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed big city in the U.S., the campy crime drama “Clover” has a predominantly white (with some African American and Native American representation) cast of characters involved in the criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: Two Irish American brothers who owe $50,000 to an Italian American crime boss go on the run when they get blamed for the death of the crime boss’ only son, and a teenage girl gets involved in their shenanigans.

Culture Audience: “Clover” will appeal mostly to people looking for a very lowbrow crime caper for escapist entertainment.

Chazz Palminteri in “Clover” (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)

The title of the campy crime drama “Clover” is kind of misleading, because the title character—a teenage girl named Clover—isn’t the main character of the story, and she doesn’t show up until 23 minutes into this 101-minute movie. “Clover” is really about the bickering Irish American fraternal twin brothers who are at the center of the movie and whose actions propel almost everything that happens in the story.

Mickey (played by Jon Abrahams, who directed “Clover) and Jackie (played by Mark Webber) are the owners of a seedy bar, which they inherited from their late father. Their mother has also passed away. From the get go, viewers see that the brothers are complete opposites and they don’t get along with each other. Mickey is the responsible brother who has more common sense, while Jackie is the screw-up brother who makes a lot of dumb decisions.

One of these dumb decisions is Jackie losing $50,000 in a blackjack game, when the money was supposed to go to repaying a debt that the brothers owe to local crime boss Tony Davallo (played by Chazz Palminteri, in yet another gangster role). When Mickey finds out, he and Jackie into a knock-down, drag-out fight before heading to Tony’s lair (a bar located in the basement of a bowling alley) to tell him that they don’t have the money and hope that they don’t get assaulted or worse by Tony’s goons.

Tony is every bit the stereotypical crime boss that’s been portrayed in dozens of movies and TV shows. He’s angry that the brothers don’t have his money, but he makes them a deal: He’ll erase the debt if Mickey and Jackie accompany Tony’s only son Joey (played by Michael Godere) to collect a debt from another deadbeat, who owes $80,000 to Tony.

Of course, it’s not as simple as just collecting a debt. Mickey knows it, and senses that they’re about to get involved in a violent crime, even though Joey (a cocaine-snorting thug) not very convincingly denies it. Mickey tries to talk his way out of going, but he and Jackie don’t have much of a choice, so they go with Joey and break into the man’s home.

The guy who owes Tony the $80,000 debt is named Barry (played by Sky Paley), and he’s surprised by this late-night break-in. In short order, Barry is brought down to a basement, tied up, and beaten by Joey, who then shoots and kills Barry, as horrified Mickey and Jackie look on. A fight ensues because the brothers don’t want to be involved in a murder. Joey loses his grip on his gun, and the next thing you know, Joey is shot dead by a girl wearing a hoodie, who says she’s Barry’s 13-year-old daughter Clover.

Mickey and Jackie know that Tony will blame them for Joey’s death. Meanwhile, Clover (played by Nicole Elizabeth Berger) thinks that Mickey and Jackie killed Barry, even though they tell her that Joey really committed the murder. Clover doesn’t seem to know what’s the truth. So, in order for her not to go to the police, Mickey and Jackie force Clover to go on the run with them, which takes up nearly the rest of the movie. And where is Clover’s mother? She tells Jackie and Mickey that her mother is dead, but that might or might not be true.

“Clover” is the type of silly “mobsters are after us” movie that has a lot of gun shootouts where people corner each other with guns, but then stand around talking and insulting each other before anyone actually starts shooting. Mickey, Jackie and Clover’s panicky race to outrun and hide from Tony and his henchmen take them to different places during the course of the movie.

The first place they run to is a bar owned by a tough-as-nails family friend named Pat (played by Tichina Arnold), where they barely escape when Tony’s thugs catch up to them there. Somehow, Mickey (who’s supposed to be the smart brother) is shocked that the thugs would think of tracking them down at the bar, even though it’s owned by a known family friend of the brothers. Yes, it’s not a good idea to try and hide at the most obvious places.

Another hideout that the brothers try is the apartment of Jackie’s ex-girlfriend Angie (played by Jessica Szohr). She’s reluctant to help them at first, but she takes pity on Clover. Angie also still has feelings for dimwitted Jackie (of course she does), so that’s why Angie ends up driving with all of them in her car to go where they need to go. They also stop along the way at the home of their childhood friend Stevie (played by Johnny Messner), a cop whose father co-founded the bar with the father of Mickey and Jackie.

For people who are trying to lay low and hide, they sure are hopping all over town. Mickey, Jackie, Clover and Angie then end up in an abandoned train station (where the pace of the movie starts to drag for a while), which is the scene of another unrealistic shootout. And then there’s another stop, this time at an abandoned warehouse occupied by Mickey and Jackie’s loopy cousin Terry (played by Jake Weber), who has escaped from a psychiatric institution. The scenes with Terry have the best comedy in the movie, which isn’t saying much because “Clover” isn’t exactly a treasure trove of clever and funny dialogue.

Also in the mix are female assassins Gertie (played by Erika Christensen) and Virginia (played by Julia Jones), a lesbian couple who argue over things like whether or not coal fire or wood fire is better for making pizza or burning bones. Gertie and Virginia are hired by Tony to find Mickey and Jackie. They are ruthless, cold and calculating—making them possibly more dangerous than Tony’s bumbling thugs.

And there’s another character, who’s seen only in the beginning and end of the film: a mysterious wealthy guy named Mister Wiley (played by Ron Perlman, who clearly had fun hamming it up with this over-the-top character) whose connection to the story is made clear at the very end. The only thing that viewers really see of Mister Wiley in the beginning is that he’s a mean-spirited control freak who yells at a house employee for entering a meeting room he’s in when the door was closed. He also says things like, “The pecking order must not be disrupted or else we will have chaos.”

To its credit, “Clover” doesn’t take itself too seriously, but the screenplay by Michael Testone is still so awful (including the story’s big plot twists) that viewers might find themselves laughing at scenes that weren’t really intended to be funny. “Clover” takes place in the present day, but it also tries to have a 1970s vibe. The soundtrack tunes from little-known artists such as Charles Bradley and El Michels Affair try to evoke the same aura as gritty crime movies that Al Pacino or Pam Grier would’ve starred in the mid-1970s. However, the ’70s-styled retro music choices would work better for a movie that’s more authentic than “Clover” is, because “Clover” is about as realistic as a “Ren & Stimpy” cartoon.

With “Clover,” Abrahams shows that he can capably direct himself in a movie—he’s the best actor out of the characters who are on the run from crime boss Tony—and the action scenes are adequate, but they’re often ruined by the terrible and corny dialogue. The well-known veteran actors in the cast don’t really add much substance, because they’re playing character types they’ve played many times before—”angry crime boss” for Palminteri; “menacing villain” for Perlman; and “tough-talking woman” for Arnold.

As bad as “Clover” is, it isn’t the worst movie someone can see all year—and that’s mostly because the film’s main actors are at least compatible with their roles. The movie’s appeal certainly isn’t in its poorly written, clunky screenplay that tries to throw in a few curveballs to make it look a lot smarter than it really is. “Clover” is the kind of movie that people can watch if they’re extremely bored and want to see a movie where intelligence is not required.

Freestyle Digital Media released “Clover” on digital and VOD on April 3, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Safe Spaces’ (now titled ‘After Class’)

May 4, 2019

by Carla Hay

Justin Long, Emily Schechter and Kate Berlant in “Safe Spaces” (Photo by Gregory Wilson)

“Safe Spaces”

Directed by Daniel Schechter

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 29, 2019.

UPDATE: “Safe Spaces” was retitled “After Class” after the movie was screened at multiple film festivals.

The dramedy “Safe Spaces” almost feels like it could have been two movies because so much is going on with the lead character, Josh Cohn, a 38-year-old adjunct professor in New York City who’s going through turmoil in his professional and personal lives. Justin Long is Josh in the movie, one of several films in which Long plays a single guy who’s unlucky in love. On the professional front, Josh’s job might be in jeopardy because of inappropriate sexual comments that he made in one of his classes. On the personal front, Josh’s beloved maternal grandmother (played by Lynn Cohen) is dying in a hospital, and he has to take shifts with bickering family members who are keeping vigil over her in her final days.

“Safe Spaces” (written and directed by Daniel Schechter) starts out showing the professional problem first. Josh teaches a creative writing class, and during a session with his students, he encourages a female student to share a personal story that might help her become a better writer. “Embarrass yourselves,” he tells the class. “Write what hurts.”  When she confesses that an embarrassing sexual situation recently happened to her, Josh eggs her on to tell him and the class in detail what happened. She is very reluctant, but Josh insists that she tell, so she eventually reveals that when she was recently on a date with a guy, he asked if he could ejaculate on her rear end. (It’s described in much cruder terms in the movie.)

Instead of being mortified that he pressured someone to share this very explicit sexual information in a public setting, Josh is elated that she opened up in a candid way. That’s a red flag right there that Josh, especially in this #MeToo era, is socially clueless and has some serious issues with professional boundaries. Not surprisingly, a complaint is filed against him by one of the female students in his class—not the student who told the story, but another student who felt that Josh was being sexually intimidating and that he created a hostile environment in the class.

It turns out the student with the complaint was sexually assaulted in her past. She felt triggered by Josh’s behavior, and she no longer feels safe in his class because she thinks that he might pressure her and other female students to reveal sexual secrets too. Meanwhile, Josh is indignant because he feels that he didn’t do anything wrong. He thinks that because everyone in the class is an adult, they should have been able to handle that raw talk. His bosses recommend that he make an apology anyway, but he refuses. Several of his students then boycott his class to show solidarity to the student who complained. Josh’s job as an adjunct professor barely pays enough to cover his bills, so he’s feeling the financial pressure of possibly losing his job.

Meanwhile, Josh’s dysfunctional family is also giving him a lot of stress. His younger sister Jackie (played by Kate Berlant) is a flaky, pill-popping podcaster who unexpectedly shows up and crashes at his place because she needs a place to live. His married older brother David (played by Michael Godere) is still angry with Josh because Josh had a fling with the nanny (played by Megan Pickarski) hired to take care of David’s daughters (played by Kaitlyn and Emily Schechter), and the nanny left the job because the fling ended. David is the only person in the family to call out Josh for his pattern of irresponsible and selfish behavior. Meanwhile, Josh has begun dating a much-younger Eastern-European woman named Caterina (played by Sylvia Morigi), who likes to use dominatrix-type sexual techniques and who’s reluctant to fully commit to Josh.

Josh’s mother Diane (played by Fran Drescher) is still bitter over her divorce from Josh’s father Jeff (played by Richard Schiff), who left her for a younger woman named Sherry, who is now his current wife. Jeff has started a new life with Sherry (played by Dana Eskelson) and their bratty underage son Ben (played by Tyler Wladis), both of whom can’t stand Josh and his siblings. When Jeff was married to Diane, he was close to his mother-in-law, but since his current wife despises his first family, he’s torn about whether or not to visit his former mother-in-law before she dies. Josh and Jeff already have a lot of tension in their relationship, so the financially strapped Josh feels embarrassed when he has to ask Jeff for money to help pay his rent.

The “family problems” part of the movie is supposed to make Josh look more sympathetic, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for a 38-year-old professor (in other words, he should know better) who uses his position of power to browbeat a student into revealing a sexual secret to the entire class. It’s inappropriate and aggressive, regardless of the gender of the student. What makes it worse is that Josh thinks the person who complained doesn’t deserve an apology. Even if he doesn’t think what he did was wrong, someone was seriously offended by his behavior, so it’s very problematic that he refuses to acknowledge that his actions hurt someone emotionally. It’s also a symptom of an arrogant sense of entitlement that comes from people who abuse their privileges.

The #MeToo movement has created a lot of resentment from people (mostly men) who used to get away with a lot of this type of behavior, and they’re quick to call people “uptight” or “too politically correct” if anyone objects to inappropriate sexual comments. This resentment is exemplified by two young male students who offer to mount a campaign on campus to defend Josh, who declines their help because he thinks it will make the situation worse.

In another conversation between Josh and another young male student, there’s an underlying “we hate politically correct culture” tone when the student complains that a story he wrote about a Jewish summer camp probably has to be changed because all of the people are white in his current draft of the story. Josh agrees, and then half-heartedly gives suggestions on who in the story could be of a different race. The dialogue in this part of the movie is written in such a cynical manner, they just might as well have come right out said, “This is what we have to go through now as white males. We have to force diversity in our work, or else we might be accused of being racist or sexist.”

What’s kind of dumb about this scene is that Josh doesn’t actually read the student’s story to see if the writing is any good. He just instantly reacts to the student’s paranoia that so-called politically correct vultures are out to get him. It’s obviously a reflection of how Josh feels about the complaint made against him in his job.

As if to further drive the point home that Josh is a symbol for “white men under siege in the #MeToo era,” the two supervisors overseeing Josh’s misconduct case are a white woman (played by Becky Ann Baker) and a man of Indian heritage (played by Samrat Chakrabarti). The white supervisor is more sympathetic to Josh than the non-white supervisor. These are not-so-subtle buttons that writer/director Schechter is pushing about how white men often see themselves when they’re accused of misconduct and how they’re judged if they offend women or people or color.

There’s an uncomfortable scene when Josh and his sister Jackie are out at a diner with their nieces, and they see the student who made the complaint, sitting at a nearby table. Jackie forces a confrontation, which makes things worse for Josh. The student naturally makes another complaint to the school, and Josh comes even closer to losing his job. He has another chance to make things right with the student. Will he do it?

Tensions in the family also come to a head when they are told that Josh’s grandmother has only a few days to live. Josh and his siblings put their squabbles aside to band together, go to their father Jeff’s home, and try to convince him to go with them to the hospital to say goodbye to their grandmother. Jeff’s wife Sherry, who’s portrayed as cold-hearted and jealous, gives Jeff an extreme ultimatum: If you go to the hospital with your children, our marriage is over. Will he do it?

“Safe Spaces” isn’t a bad movie (the best scenes are the ones with Josh’s grandmother), and the lead character Josh isn’t a bad person. He just isn’t interesting enough to care about for most of this film. If you like the type of Woody Allen-inspired movies that are filled with neurotic, privileged New Yorkers who create their own problems and seem to be addicted to personal chaos, then “Safe Spaces” is the movie for you.

UPDATE: Gravitas Ventures, which changed the name of this movie from “Safe Spaces” to “After Class,” will release the movie in select U.S. theaters and on home video on December 6, 2019.