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Knave of Queens

Just Looking blinded by adolescent humor

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Should there be an Old New York cable channel? From Radio Days to "Brooklyn Bridge" to Neil Simon's autobiographical plays, a multitude of works wax nostalgic for life in Manhattan and the outer boroughs. The quality is nearly as high as the quantity of New York period pieces, setting an intimidatingly high bar for films like Just Looking that hark back to the same years and the same ethnic communities.

The coming-of-age comedy of Just Looking, unfortunately, doesn't clear the hurdle. Set in Queens and the Bronx in 1955, the movie maintains a snickeringly adolescent tone nearly throughout and comes to maturity too late to win over the audience.

Puberty has hit 14-year-old Lenny (Ryan Merriman) especially hard. He sees sex everywhere, from the jungle costumes of Sheena comic books to the way phonograph holes fit on their spindles to the dirty talk his imagination puts in the mouth of his teachers and other grown-ups. His resolution for summer vacation is to be an eyewitness to a couple copulating -- a wish he could achieve nowadays with five minutes of unrestrained Internet access.

Lenny's attempts to peep through the keyhole of his widowed mother (Patti Lupone) and her new husband (Rich Licata) are found out, so they decide he'll spend the summer in the country. Or in Queens, which is the closest thing to it -- they have yards and trees there, his mother explains. Lenny treks out to the wilds of 133rd street to stay with his pregnant aunt (Ilana Levine) and her Italian husband Phil (Peter Onorati).

Working in Phil's deli, Lenny sees things pick up when his fellow delivery boy (chuckle-headed Joey Franquinha) reveals that he belongs to a "sex club." "Do you have jackets?" Lenny asks. In fact, the group is all talk, no action, but Catholic teen Alice (Amy Braverman) has a textbook knowledge of the birds and the bees, and the group examines such finds as X-rated comic books. When Lenny befriends deli customer Hedy (Gretchen Mol), a nurse and former underwear model, he finds a target for his voyeurism.

Some films have brought insight to the topic of sexual curiosity, and older ones like Little Darlings and Class of '42 come to mind. But for most of the movie, Lenny's quest plays like a subplot of American Pie or a Porky's knockoff. Just Looking was directed by "Seinfeld's" Jason Alexander, and it's hard not to see a little George Costanza in Merriman's pushy performance. We're supposed to be charmed by Lenny's "moxie," but it plays more like an unappealing compulsion.

Alexander jerks the film from unashamed pathos to broad comedy involving dropped pants, banana jokes and mispronounced reproductive terms. Licata, playing Lenny's stepfather, a husky butcher, is a cartoonish villain and slapstick butt for most of the film, then awkwardly presented as a sympathetic character. The film milks the death of Lenny's father, perhaps because it's his only likable trait.

A few moments nicely suggest the texture of the time, such as an introductory shot of the bustling Bronx humanity on sidewalks and fire escapes and a block party in Queens later on. Screenwriter Marshall Karp, a TV scribe whose greatest claim to fame is the "Thank You, Paine Webber" ads, provides some relief in quiet scenes with Lenny and Hedy bonding, although their comparison of the working-class poetry in their fathers' careers is sheer cornball.

Having Onorati sing bits of opera proves a lazy bit of stereotyping, although the actor proves comfortable as a self-styled Italian stallion type. Mol, prematurely crowned an "It Girl" by Vanity Fair, proves as competent and unmemorable as always, with another performance that's free of interesting edges. Young Amy Braverman offers the film's only breakout portrayal, giving Alice a bookish exterior, a dirty-talking attitude and hidden aspirations for romance.

In a climactic turn of events that ends with Lenny's wish coming true, Alexander offers a surreal sequence that catches Merriman in the driving rain, with horror movie lightning bolts in the sky and wailing electric guitar, as if he's become caught in a 1980s music video.

In Just Looking's final act Lenny learns some true insights about the sexual politics of adults, but his getting of wisdom comes too late to bail out the movie. With so many other films covering the same ground, you'd hope that a new effort would reach into the exhilaration and pain of adolescence, but Just Looking is essentially all that Alexander and Karp do.

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