A Little Ditty

rex3 3 A Little Ditty The Dukes
Running time 96 minutes
Written by James Andronica and Robert Davi
Directed by Robert Davi
Starring Robert Davi, Chazz Palminteri, Miriam Margolyes, Frank D’Amico, Peter Bogdanovich

Another modest comedy, The Dukes is about a has-been Hollywood doo-wop group popular in the 1960s, and the elaborate, sometimes larcenous things they do to make a comeback in 2007. Robert Davi, a rumpled-face actor who has made a career out of playing terrorists, thugs and villains, most notably Colombian drug lord Franz Sanchez in the 1989 James Bond thriller, License to Kill, makes his directorial debut with The Dukes, which he also co-wrote and produced. He’s no Billy Wilder.

He stars as Danny DePasquale, the band’s leader who has come a long way down in the almost 50 years since the Dukes last faced a recording mike. In fact, he’s so down on his luck he can’t even afford to help his ex-wife pay their son’s dentist bills. His cousin George (Chazz Palminteri) has been reduced to washing pots in the Italian trattoria of their loud-mouthed, no-nonsense Aunt Vee (veteran British actress Miriam Margolyes, who steals every scene she’s in). The two best friends who round out the band are Armond (Frank D’Amico), a stand-up comic who used to open the act, now a diabetic confined to a wheelchair, and Murph (Elya Baskin), who has been fired as an airline mechanic for being a pothead. The movie is about how these four flaky losers try to stage a return to doo-wop glory on the coattails of Frankie Valli and his Jersey Boys with the help of their manager, Lou (Peter Bogdanovich), and a safecracker (Bruce Weitz) whose idea of a big score is filching a dental lab’s gold supply used to fill cavities.

It’s pretty funny watching four middle-aged men shaped like beer barrels wearing tomato costumes in a pasta sauce commercial. And when the Dukes finally turn Aunt Vee’s into the Doo Wop Cafe and get onstage singing close harmony like the Orioles, I hate to admit it but I found the awful Frankie Lymon falsetto chords deliriously contagious. It all brings back memories of the Edsels, the Emeralds, the Chords and the Velvets, not to mention everyone who ever thumped and hissed their way through “Sh-Boom” over thousands of root beer floats.

It’s encouraging to see a fine, underrated actor like Robert Davi break out of his mold to lead a solid ensemble of character players in a movie like The Dukes, and as a writer he shares some friendly notions about the moxie of good-natured blue-collar bandits who refuse to let the American Dream go sour. It’s an enjoyable way to pass 90 minutes. But to call it an important movie with big ideas is like saying Miley Cyrus sings like Ella Fitzgerald.

rreed@observer.com