In "Caught," overweight, workaholic Joe (Edward James Olmos) and his pretty, restless wife Betty (Maria Conchita Alonso) are a middle-aged couple who have drifted into the humdrum routine of running their small fish market in Jersey City.
Joe loves fish, he loves his shop and, as Betty says, he'd work 24 hours a day if she'd let him. Betty, meanwhile, would like to be anywhere else.
Their only child, an adult son named Danny (Steven Schub), is on the other coast, where he has been failing as a standup comic for a couple of years.
Danny keeps in touch with his parents via dark-edged videotapes of himself, doing decidedly unfunny shtick, such as telling his mother she's been neglectful in her correspondence as he reclines with a fake bloody knife in his stomach. Betty soaks it all up, replaying the tapes endlessly. Joe simply makes sarcastic remarks.
But things start to change when their life is disrupted by a homeless drifter named Nick (Arie Verveen), who is on the run from police. Nick wanders into their shop and complains that he hasn't eaten in three days, so Betty takes pity on him and invites him to dinner. Then she gets the reluctant Joe to take him on as an assistant. If that's not enough, she also gives Nick a home — in her son's bedroom.
At this point, it is obvious we've wandered into James M. Cain territory, specifically "The Postman Always Rings Twice." But writer Edward Pomerantz (adapting his own novel, "Into It") and director Robert M. Young ("The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez," "Roosters") have other fish to fry . . . so to speak.
"Caught" is a character-driven melodrama, and as played by Olmos and Alonso, Joe and Betty are a wonderfully real, ethnic blue-collar couple. Verveen is a bit less convincing as the Irish-American interloper, perhaps because he plays the role in a James Dean-Marlon Brando brooding kind of way, which seems mannered. Fortunately, he has a likability that goes a long way toward winning audience favor. And as Danny, Schub is genuinely scary.
The film is slow going much of the way, with the characters' angst explored through mopey closeups that linger too long. The lighting is stark and unflattering, and the direction is unimaginative and static, with lots of closeups, as if the film was shot with the video market in mind.
Young stages several graphic sex scenes between Betty and Nick, which are meant to charge things up. Everyone takes lots of showers, and Betty and Nick have trysts around the house, right under Joe's nose. This makes Betty and Nick seem more dumb than reckless, but it makes Joe look like a first-class dope.
As a result, it's the arrival of their son, who is filled with paranoid anger, that really brings the film alive. It doesn't take Danny long to realize that this guy who has taken over his bedroom and become something of a second son to his father is also having an affair with his mother. But then he wrongly begins to suspect his own wife of having an affair with Nick as well.
Things go from bad to worse until a logical, not-unexpected dramatic climax. But then, an unfortunate, tacked-on coda puts us back in illogical movie-land.
As Nick says in the film's opening moment, "It's amazing the way you get into things." There are places where you can really get into "Caught" — especially with the terrific performances from Alonso and Schub.
But too often it settles for being merely another potboiler — overheated and half-baked.
"Caught" is rated R for violence, sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity and marijuana smoking.