Usually the presence of two directors in the credits for a movie is a sign of trouble, unless the directors are siblings or spouses, because it’s likely someone got fired partway through the process. Yet every so often, there’s a movie like The Stoolie, which bears no obvious traces of behind-the-scenes friction despite being helmed by John G. Avildsen and George Silano. (Best guess: Established filmmaker Avildsen replaced Silano, a cinematographer making his fiction directorial debut.) Anyway, The Stoolie includes the first starring role for stand-up comedian Jackie Mason, also the film’s executive producer. Although never a major screen star, he’s been a beloved figure on the comedy circuit for decades, and The Stoolie is a perfect vehicle for his deadpan shtick. It’s interesting to contemplate what path Mason’s career might have followed if The Stoolie had found an audience.
He plays Roger Pitman, a low-rent criminal/informer in New York City. Normally, Roger gets paid by the NYPD to rat on fellow crooks, but one day he pulls a fast one—after swiping $7,500 in NYPD front money, Roger skips town for Miami. This doesn’t sit well with his handler, Sgt. Alex Brogan (Dan Frazer), who vows to track down Roger and recover the cash. But first Roger, to whom life has never been kind, enjoys a brief adventure. Hanging out at Miami nightclubs and resorts, he tries to score with ladies, most of whom tell him to drop dead, until he ends up in a diner next to the equally melancholy Sylvia (Babette New). An unlikely romance begins, though Roger is hesitant to explain his background. (“I don’t want to tell you too much about myself,” he says. "I don’t want to lose you this early in the relationship.”) Eventually, Brogan discerns Roger’s whereabouts, and that’s when the story takes an unexpected turn.
Grounded in solid character work and infused with low-key humor, The Stoolie isn’t for everyone’s taste. Some will find Roger too mopey, Sylvia too naïve, and Brogan too one-dimensional. All true. Yet for those who lock into the movie’s groove—which is really Mason’s groove, all “why does everything happen to me?” kvetching—The Stoolie is quite enjoyable. Some nasty things happen, some sweet things happen, and through it all, Roger struggles to grab whatever dignity and happiness he can. So while this movie is hardly on par with the great offbeat character studies of the ’70s, it at least communicates with roughly the same idiom as those films. And despite the split director credit, it also ranks alongside Avildsen’s most satisfying comedies. Go figure.
The Stoolie: GROOVY