Film Review: '37'

The notorious 1964 New York City murder of Kitty Genovese is the springboard for this arty but tedious meditation on urban angst.
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March 13, 1964. The residents of a three-building, middle-class housing complex in Kew Gardens, Queens, go about their daily business: Working-age men go to their jobs, leaving behind mothers, children, the elderly and a handful of misfits like failed artist Sam (Don Puglisi), who joins retirees like George Bernstein (Thomas Kopache) for a time-killing game of dominoes on the sidewalk.

Young Billy Cunningham (Evan Fine) is obsessed with UFOs and sells picture of naked ladies to his grade-school pals; his father, Bob (Jamie Harrold), is having a nervous breakdown that Billy's bitter, controlling mother (Maria Dizzia) refuses to acknowledge. Twelve-year-old Debbie (Sophia Lillis) lives with her grandparents, George and Florel (Lucy Martin), dreaming that her missing mother is coming home for her; Debbie has alienated her classmates with her habit of counting every step she takes each day. Archibald Smith (Michael Potts) and his pregnant wife, Joyce (Samira Wiley), have just moved in; having left Harlem in search of upward mobility, they're the lone African-American family in their building and their five-year-old son, Troy (Marquise Gary), is baffled by the tension between his parents. Come nightfall, screams from outside force a reckoning: Who will act and who will pretend not to hear?

The murder in which this film is rooted passed from true crime to symbol in record time: A contemporary New York Times article transformed the 37 witnesses who failed to act into the embodiment of urban alienation and eventually spawned the term "bystander effect," referring to the failure to intervene on behalf of someone who's being hurt because no one else is doing so. Unfortunately for '37', the reality was that many of Genovese's neighbors did call the police and one left her apartment to physically attend the mortally wounded woman, all of which the Times subsequently reported and which seriously undermines the metaphor.

Of course, if '37' were an exceptional film whose impact weren't explicitly tied to its "inspired by a true story" bona-fides and the inaccurate perception that the Genovese murder was symbolic of America's loss of innocence as the ebullient 1950s became the turbulent 1960s, none of that would matter. But it's not, so it does: '37' is short on convincing drama and long on one-dimensional characters who stand for things, a kaleidoscope of issues rather than an ensemble of voices. Expanded from a short film Danish-born, first-time feature director Puk Grasten made while a student in the NYU Tisch graduate film program, '37' is earnest and handsomely self-aware, its shots of nondescript apartment-building hallways and stairwells fluid and clearly influenced by The Shining. But it's viscerally inert and it's a hard to imagine who the audience is for this piece of historical reenactment.

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