What Doesn’t Kill You

The bookstores are filled with memoirs by ex-cons, drug addicts, and all varieties of perverts, many of them believing that because their personal histories are unusual, that automatically means they are interesting. The problem, of course, is that when a lot of people have the same unusual story, it stops being unusual. Moreover, even if your experiences are genuinely unique, merely recounting them isn’t enough. You have to do it with some skill.

That’s the trouble with “What Doesn’t Kill You,” a film memoir by Brian Goodman, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay based on his own life in South Boston. Goodman’s history, assuming it happened more or less the way it does in the film, must have been traumatic and life-changing for him. But as it’s been laid out on the big screen, the story is generic and uncompelling, coming across as just another gritty drama about a major city’s criminal underbelly.

Goodman has cast Mark Ruffalo to play the fictionalized version of himself, also named Brian. The movie Brian and his lifelong best friend, Paulie (Ethan Hawke), have been running errands for a South Boston crime boss, Pat (played by Goodman himself), since they were teenagers. Now in their 30s, the two have failed to rise any higher on the food chain, a fact that irks the jittery Paulie. When Pat goes to prison, Paulie sees an opportunity to take over some of his business. That doesn’t sit well with Pat, who, though incarcerated, still has plenty of control over his racket.

Brian isn’t quite as criminally ambitious as Paulie, and he’s better at showing respect to those with authority over him (i.e., Pat). But Brian is interested in drinking, smoking crack, and otherwise upsetting his weary wife (Amanda Peet). The bulk of the film is about Brian and Paulie’s run-ins with the cops, the penal system, and Brian’s wife. It makes the point that there aren’t a lot of options for a career criminal or ex-con, that it’s easy to fall back into bad habits — all of which is true, but which we’ve seen before in movies more scintillating than this one.

Donnie Wahlberg (who also has a writing credit on the film) has a brief, mostly useless cameo as a cop. This is in accordance with the Massachusetts state law that says any crime film set in Boston must contain at least one (1) Wahlberg. But it also speaks to the movie’s earnest but off-kilter logic that if something happened in the real story, it must be included in the screen version. There was a cop in real life; hence, there needs to be a cop in the movie, even if the story doesn’t need him.

Ruffalo and Peet are the best things about the film. Both are natural and un-showy, not the type of performances that win awards, maybe, but the type that give a film respectability and honesty. The story isn’t much, but the mature acting makes the whole thing tolerable as a so-so adult drama.

C+ (1 hr., 40 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, some strong violence, brief sexuality.)