Growing Up Absurd In R.I.

If you've seen the ads for "Outside Providence," you've been deceived. This is not, as Miramax would like you to believe, "There's Something About Mary" meets "Dumb & Dumber." Yes, it was written by the Farrelly brothers (along with Michael Corrente, the director) and based on Peter Farrelly's novel--and, yes, it's often very funny. But gross-out farce is neither its style nor its objective. A memory piece set in 1974, it's the coming-of-age story of a working-class teenager, Tim Dunphy (Shawn Hatosy), from Pawtucket, R.I. Tim's got a gruff but loving widowed dad (Alec Baldwin) who calls him Dildo, a kid brother in a wheelchair, a three-legged dog, a small circle of stoner friends and a view of the world that doesn't stretch farther than the end of his bong. All that begins to change when, to get him off the hook with the law, he's sent for his senior year to the preppy Cornwall Academy for Boys. Cornwall is just the sort of uptight, disciplinarian institution a blue-collar kid like Tim--who doesn't know how to tie his tie--was born to disrupt.

It's also just the sort of place where he'll fall in love with a thoroughbred beauty (Amy Smart) and discover there's more to life than listening to the Allman Brothers. All coming-of-age stories tell essentially the same story. If they rise above cliche--and "Outside Providence" does, several contrived moments aside--it's because they play telling variations on an old theme. Whether it's Tim giving his girl a double roach clip for a Christmas present, or the convincing way Baldwin and Hatosy navigate their ambivalent feelings toward each other, the movie gets a lot of the details right.

Director Corrente ("Federal Hill"), who grew up in Providence, has a nice feel for the '70s, and a simple but sensitive style. He turns this cast of largely fresh faces into an impressive ensemble. (But why do the wigs have to be so obvious?) Baldwin once again shows that he's a far more interesting character actor than Hollywood leading man. Of course, no project Bobby and Peter Farrelly worked on would be complete without masturbation, vomiting and a couple of crashing wheelchair gags--but Corrente puts them in a human, not cartoon, context. This is a sweet, funny little movie, and with luck it can survive the marketing con job. "Outside Providence" is winning enough on its own terms.

Outside Providence.Miramax. Opens Sept. 3.