Every now and then, a filmmaker will release something that’s such a radical departure from their established canon of work we’re tempted to double-check to make sure it’s the same person, e.g., “Porky’s” director Bob Clark delivering the perennial holiday classic “A Christmas Story,” or Peter Farrelly of “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary” writing/directing/producing the multiple Oscar-winning “The Green Book.”
The latest example would be James DeMonaco, who is best known for the dystopian horror “The Purge” franchise but now shifts gears in a major way for “This Is the Night,” a period-piece, coming-of-age film set on Staten Island in 1982, on the premiere date of “Rocky III.” Alas, while there’s no doubting the sincerity and passion behind DeMonaco’s love letter to the movies in general, to the “Rocky” franchise, and to the “American Graffiti”-esque device of having a series of life-changing events transpiring over the course of a single day/night, this is an unconvincing, contrived and rarely relatable misfire.
In the world of “This is the Night,” May 28, 1982, is a bigger date than Christmas and the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving all rolled into one because this is the day “Rocky III” hits theaters, and EVERYONE is dying to see it and can talk of nothing else and look at those lines snaking around the block at the local movie house! There’s even a gang of toughs who have beat each other to a pulp in order to look like Rocky after one of his bouts against Apollo Creed. Okaaaaaay…
Lucius Hoyos is Tony, a sweet, soft-spoken teenager who is so obsessed with all things “Rocky” he gets upset if anyone even mentions the rumors a main character in “Rocky III” might die. He has plans to see the film with his older brother Christian (Jonah Hauer-King), his mother Marie (Naomi Watts) and his father Vincent (Frank Grillo), a chef whose business is struggling. If dad can’t get the obligatory Loan from the Unsympathetic Bank Officer, he’ll have to hand his business over to the local crime kingpin Frank Larocca (Bobby Cannavale), a flashy, violent meathead who has a beef with Vincent dating back to their high school days. As plot would have it, Tony is in love with Frank’s sweet daughter Sophia (Madelyn Cline), who is dating an insensitive bully — but today might be the day when Tony finally declares his feelings for Sophia. Oh, and there’s also the matter of big brother Christian harboring a major secret: He likes to cross dress, something his mother has just discovered.
Even with all that (and more) going on, Tony and his family make it to an afternoon showing of “Rocky III,” which leads to an extended sequence where we don’t actually see any clips from the film as the camera focuses on the audience reacting to the unfolding story in wildly over-the-top fashion. As everyone is filing out of the theater, Sophia’s jerky boyfriend falsely accuses Tony of calling Rocky Balboa a sissy (a harsher term is used), and now Tony and his pals are on the run like “The Warriors,” trying to avoid getting pummeled by various gangs and random tough guys. It’s more exhausting than entertaining, and the multiple conclusions to the interconnecting storylines are more on the level of the dud that was “Rocky V” than the thrills of “Rocky III.”