Scott Baio of "Charles in Charge" fame stars in the low-budget romance The Bread, My Sweet, and in the role of Dominic, he's in charge of all too much.
He's a rising senior vice president of a big Pittsburgh corporation, but his day job only makes up a fraction of his life. Dominic also owns a small bakery where he works alongside his two brothers, Eddie (Billy Mott), a would-be actor and ladies' man, and Pino (Marietta native Schuler Hensley), who's massive, mentally disabled and a master at making pies.
First-time filmmaker Melissa Martin used her husband's own small bakery as one of Bread's primary locations, and it nicely captures the local color of Dominic's Italian-American environs. But Bread too often slips into caricature -- of ethnic types as well as three-hanky melodramas -- when a health crisis puts pressure on Dominic's divided loyalties.
The bakery's upstairs neighbors define the film's split personality. Elderly Massimo (John Seitz) offers a bumptious parody of an Old World Italian, especially with his broken English lines like "Me no like you!" When he's not yelling "Jackoff!" at Dominic, he's bursting into "La Donna Mobile." His wife Bella (Rosemary Prinz) proves far more soft-spoken, and while the actress relies heavily on a single trick -- letting a smile slowly spread into a huge grin -- she comes pleasantly across like a real person.
For several years Dominic has been like a son to Bella, and he's heartbroken at the news that she has terminal cancer. When he meets Bella's long-absent daughter Lucca (Kristin Minter) at Christmas, Dominic decides to propose to her for the sole purpose of making Bella's last months happy. In the real world, such a choice would be a terrible, deceptive idea (although a great way to get on "Dr. Phil"), but the film doesn't give Dominic's decision that much introspection.
Dominic explains that he wants to do something for somebody else for a change, but Bread paints him as a saint. It's like Bread has the worries of a mainstream film that won't let its hero do anything unsympathetic for fear that audiences won't like him. He's a hatchet-man at his corporate job, but we never see him fire anyone, even though we'd like to see Dominic's dark side. Nevertheless, Biao's performance makes Dominic familiar and human. The character may be generous, but Baio's a little stingy with his smiles, conveying the drive we'd expect of a self-starter like Dominic.
Some of Bread's best ideas involve food. Dominic is repulsed by the way his corporate cronies gorge themselves on processed snacks, shot in amusingly unattractive close-up. And there's a poignant touch as Pino, unaware of Bella's condition but puzzled by her lack of appetite, labors to make smaller and smaller pies for her. Still, that only points to the shamelessness of a film that features a sweet, dying old lady; a huge, child-like innocent; and a piano sadly plinking "The Twelve Days of Christmas." All it lacks is a kitten in the rain.
Martin's effectiveness with local color and Baio's focused performance get further diminished when the deceptive wedding idea takes hold. It's like the premise of a screwball comedy, but the film takes it at face value, and the last half-hour alternates between cliches from tearjerkers and wedding movies.
The best you can say for The Bread, My Sweet is that its nice to see a film about Italian-American culture where they're not trying to whack each other. But you still have to endure aggressive platitudes like, "Everybody gotta scream, or life's too small!" You'll want to scream, all right.
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