A grim story about the everyday humiliations of getting old, cowriter-director Stephen Verona’s Boardwalk leavens its darker aspects by celebrating the love that keeps two people connected after 50 years of marriage. Very much a showcase for the celebrated acting teacher Lee Strasberg, who enjoyed a burst of fame following his memorable appearance in The Godfather: Part II (1974), Boardwalk offers a peculiar mixture of caricature and understatement. The film’s broadest element is its depiction of a street gang as a group of one-dimensional maniacs wreaking pointless havoc on a once-peaceful neighborhood surrounding the Coney Island boardwalk. Nearly every other aspect of the picture is executed with soft-spoken intimacy, so the tension between the gang scenes and the rest of the film can be jarring at times. Yet to Verona’s credit, he integrates the gang element early and keeps it humming throughout the storyline until it becomes crucial to the climax, so one never gets the sense that the narrative has spun out of control. Somewhat like the messy lives it depicts, the narrative of Boardwalk goes where it goes, even if the trajectory sometimes seems capricious and cruel.
David Rosen (Strasberg) operates a cafeteria near the boardwalk, and his middle-aged kids, three sons and a daughter, all work there. David’s wife, Becky (Ruth Gordon), teaches piano lessons out of the home they’ve shared for half a century. But Coney is changing, mostly for the worse. Muggings and robberies are commonplace, graffiti is everywhere, and seniors are moving out in droves because they don’t feel safe anymore. David stubbornly resists the temptation to flee, partially because he remembers leaving his European homeland as a young man and doesn’t want to get pushed off his turf a second time. His resolve is tested as criminal activity edges closer and closer to his front door, and another complication arises when Becky develops health problems.
At its core, Boardwalk is about one man looking for dignity in a world that seems determined to strip him of everything he loves, so there’s a powerful individual-vs.-society statement in here somewhere. Other threads, which add tonal variety but not much weight, involve the romantic travails of David’s daughter, Florence (Janet Leigh), and the career woes of her adult son, an up-and-coming musician named Peter (Michael Ayr). Like the gang scenes, these subplots are awkward, but they eventually yield important moments.
It’s evident that Verona knows his locations well, so whether he’s going wide to use street art as a painterly backdrop or going close to focus on the well-loved tchotchkes inside Jewish homes, he employs the camera artfully. Verona also does a fine job balancing different types of performance energy, juxtaposing, for instance, Strasberg’s quiet resilience with Gordon’s singular mixture of fragility and raunchiness. Withholding background music from many scenes represents another strong creative choice, pulling viewers into the worlds of the movie’s characters. So while Boardwalk is far from masterful, it’s idiosyncratic and impassioned, all the way through to the startling final scene.